Discover Delicious Currants and Gooseberries

Currants and gooseberries are shade-tolerant berry bushes that are a great choice for any garden.


| August/September 2005



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When you first bite into a gooseberry, the tartness of the skin is balanced by the burst of sweet nectar from the flesh of the fruit. Keep eating and your mouth picks up the fragrance of the fruit — similar to the flavors found in good-tasting grapes, plums or apricots. Red, white and pink currants, gooseberry’s close relatives, have a sprightly and refreshing flavor, too, with just a bit of sweetness. Another relative, the European black currant, offers a musky sweet-tartness.

Despite being delicious and easy to grow, gooseberries and currants — in the genus Ribes (RYE-bees) — have had their ups and downs here in the United States. A hundred years ago, they were rising stars along with blueberries as commercial and backyard fruits, but the popularity of currants and gooseberries was cut short when they were implicated in the spread of rust disease in white pines, an important timber crop at the time. A federal law in the 1920s banned their planting, and in the decades that followed, wild and cultivated plants were ripped out of forests and gardens. Because cultivated varieties of gooseberries and red currants are relatively immune to rust disease and because the disease could spread hundreds of miles from susceptible wild Ribes, the ban was not very effective. It was lifted in the 1960s, and the concern was put under state mandate. By then, however, two generations of Americans had forgotten about these tasty berries.

Thanks in large part to Steven McKay, who founded the International Ribes Association when he was teaching agriculture in California 15 years ago, gooseberries and currants are experiencing a renaissance. Nurseries now offer a number of high-quality varieties, so the bushes are increasingly turning up in backyard gardens and on small farms. European black currants, which are extremely rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, also are susceptible to the rust disease, but rust-resistant varieties are being introduced, too. Greg Quinn of New York-based Au Currant Enterprises says he hopes to see 5,000 acres of currants planted in the next decade in the United States.

Over the years, I’ve grown about 50 or so varieties of gooseberries, all of them so-called “dessert” varieties that are delicious both fresh and when cooked into jams and pies. My favorites for flavor include ‘Webster,’ ‘Achilles,’ ‘Hinnonmaki Yellow,’ ‘Jumbo’ and ‘Captivator.’

I also grow a half-dozen varieties each of red currants — ‘Pink Champagne’ is my “currant” favorite — and black currants — ‘Kirovchanka’ is my favorite because it’s sweeter than most other varieties but still retains a very rich currant flavor. I sprinkle fresh currants on cereal, cook them into a sauce to pour over ice cream, or freeze them so that I can keep eating them year-round. Many people prefer currants cooked or in pies and jams.

Most people think gooseberries are small, green and sour because until recently only poor-quality varieties were available in the United States. But now gardeners are discovering the wide range of flavors, colors and sizes — there are more than 100 named varieties. In appearance, the range encompasses such varieties as ‘Jumbo,’ with berries approaching the size of a half dollar (and even larger varieties exist), ‘Captivator,’ with a carmine red skin, and ‘Whinham’s Industry,’ covered with prickly-looking but soft hairs.

david linzer
4/29/2012 12:07:50 PM

FYI, in Lee Reich's blog (http://leereich.blogspot.com/) he has a 2009 post stating that his favorite berry is the blackcurrant, specifically the Russian varieties Kirovchanka, Belaruskaja, and Minaj Shmyrev (spelling varies on the second word of that last variety). I had trouble locating them, finally found them at Whitman farms (whitmanfarms.com) but you have to email them and ask, they might not be listed on the online catalog.


david linzer
4/28/2012 9:51:21 PM

Raintree nursery currently (April 2012) does not carry Kirovchanka black currant (It was mentioned in the article that they would "soon".) Does anyone know where you can get the good Russian black currants? Kirovchanka, Belaruskaja, and Minaj Shmyrev are the favorite berries that Lee Reich grows, it would be great to be able to get some. Thank you.


lynn_20
6/12/2007 11:53:47 AM

Please tell me what kind of fertilizer to use on my red currant bush? acidic miracle grow or just plain miracle grow?






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