Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I grew up in a family that always had a garden, including fruits, but I never ate a currant until I was 25 years old. The ones I tried were red, and I thought they were great eaten fresh. According to what I read in researching this article though, redcurrants are not typically eaten fresh, but usually cooked. Oh well! I still liked them. Besides that, they are an interesting plant with ties to the lumber industry that may surprise you.
The redcurrants I tried, Ribes rubrum, are members of the genus Ribes which is composed of over 150 species of plants. Blackcurrants, whitecurrants, and gooseberries are also members of this genus.
The edible members of the genus grow as shrubs, about four feet high, though some cultivars may grow larger or stay shorter. Currents are borne in clusters of 3-10, with each individual berry only half an inch in diameter at most. Gooseberries are about the size of a grape and are produced singly or in groups of two or three.
The genus Ribes is native to the Northern Hemisphere, and several species have been cultivated as a food crop since the early 1500's in Europe, and brought to North America with the colonists in the 1700's.
The blackcurrant, Ribes nigrum, became extremely popular in England during World War II as a source of Vitamin C. Commonly eaten sources of Vitamin C like oranges and other citrus became nearly impossible to find in war-torn England. The English government encouraged citizens to grow blackcurrant, as it contains about 450% of the Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin C. Blackcurrant crops were typically boiled down into a deep purple colored syrup for use throughout the year.
Researchers have documented that blackcurrants contain particularly high levels of antioxidants, compounds which have a number of health-promoting qualities. Redcurrants and gooseberries are also sources of antioxidants. All of these small fruits have had medicinal uses at different points throughout history. Science is only beginning to substantiate some of these claims using modern methods.
Redcurrant, Ribes rubrum, is the bright red cousin of the deep purple-colored blackcurrant. Most people consider the redcurrant too sour to eat raw, so it is most often seen in cooked jams, jellies, and fillings. There is a cultivar of redcurrant called the whitecurrant, as it is colorless. The whitecurrant contains less acid, so it tastes less sour than the redcurrant.
The gooseberry, Ribes grossularia, is similar to the red- and blackcurrants, but the fruits are much larger, and the plants produce sharp spines. Different cultivars produce fruits ranging in color from green to yellow to deep reds and pinks. Plant breeders in Germany developed a cross of the blackcurrant with the gooseberry, and named it the Jostaberry. These plants lack thorns, and have large fruits with flavor much like a blackcurrant.
A major reason currants and gooseberries are not typically grown in the U.S. is because they act as alternate hosts for White Pine Blister Rust, a fungal disease. This disease doesn't harm currants and gooseberries to a great extent, but it can wipe out susceptible pine trees.
In the early 1900's the U.S. government issued a federal ban on the planting of all Ribes species, because White Pine Blister Rust was a threat to the growing lumber industry. In 1966, the ban was lifted, and it was left up to individual states to regulate growing Ribes species. In some states, the ban on planting currants and gooseberries still exists, since they have the right climate for White Pine Blister Rust to flourish.
Fortunately, White Pine Blister Rust is rarely seen in Illinois, so there is no ban on planting currants or gooseberries. Before you plant currants and gooseberries in your home garden, there are a few factors to keep in mind when selecting a planting site.
Ribes species are unique in that they can tolerate partial shade conditions in the landscape. In fact, given their low tolerance of heat, a site with afternoon shade would be best here in central Illinois. They prefer heavier soils high in clay, since these soils stay cooler. Adding a layer of mulch will also help keep the root area cool in summer.
If growing conditions are favorable, a mature currant or gooseberry bush will produce between three and ten pounds of fruit in a season. A harvest of this size would surely give anyone lots of opportunity to develop a taste for this popular European fruit.