In Europe, people have long celebrated the unique flavors of gooseberries and their colorful relatives, currants. Children drink Ribena and adults enjoy kir cocktails, both made with black currants. At breakfast, many people spread red currant jelly on their toast. Later in the day, they may enjoy a gooseberry fool, an old-fashioned dessert made with sweetened gooseberries, cream, and custard.
Fruitful European gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8) and red and black currants (Ribes rubrum and R. nigrum, Zones 3-7) are less popular in America, though our country boasts some appealing native varieties, but times are changing. In the midst of those changes, you can grow both delicious members of the Ribes family in your home garden and revel in a bountiful harvest of tart summer fruits for jams, jellies, pies, and other desserts.
White Pine Blister Rust Resistance
One factor that is making these European berries more accessible to American gardeners is the prevalence of those that are resistant to the dreaded White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR). Currants, especially black currants, and gooseberries can be alternate host plants for the disease, and while it does not kill Ribes, it devastates American white pine trees (Pinus strobus), a valuable timber species. For this reason, gooseberries and currants have been banned for commercial and garden growing in some areas of the country where white pines are prevalent or grown for timber. Because these bans are still in place, only WPBR-resistant varieties will be highlighted in this article.
Native to the British Isles, Europe, and western Asia, European gooseberry shrubs bear juicy, striated, round to ovoid fruits with a grape-like appearance. Depending on the variety, those fruits may be red, purple yellow, white, or near black, but the most recognizable gooseberries are pale green. The fruits appear on the thorny (sometimes thornless) stems of rounded shrubs that can be anywhere from 2 to 5 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide. The small lobed leaves are green and sometimes have fall color. In early spring, small, five-petaled flowers appear, eventually giving way to late spring or early summer fruit.
Good WPBR-resistant varieties include the red-fruited hybrid ‘Captivator‘ and bright-green fruited ‘Pixwell‘. All gooseberries are high in Vitamin C and best eaten cooked with added sugar to balance their tartness.
Gooseberries have been cultivated in their native regions for centuries and during that time vigorous varieties sometimes escaped from gardens to mingle with wild gooseberries in hedgerows and other untended areas. Wild birds enjoy the fruits as much as we do and spread their seeds. Here in North America, European gooseberries probably arrived with some of the first colonists, who planted them for a taste of home. (There are some edible American Ribes species, but they never gained culinary popularity.)
Gooseberries grow best in light shade to full sun in well-drained, loamy soil. We recommend amending poor garden soils with Fafard Garden Compost Blend before planting these berries. Many commercially available varieties are self-fertile, meaning that there is no need to grow a second gooseberry bush to ensure pollination by bees. Young fruit tends to be tart, but the berries sweeten up when left longer on the shrubs. Since local birds and wildlife may also enjoy the taste of your gooseberries, it may be a good idea to invest in some protective netting to deter them as the fruit ripens.
Annual or semi-annual pruning to eliminate weak or dead stems will help keep both gooseberries and currants healthy and productive.
Red currants (Ribes rubrum) and black currants (Ribes nigrum) are native to northern parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, and were known and used here by Native Americans. Colonists also brought favorite varieties from their home countries, and bushes were first offered for sale in a commercial nursery in 1770. By the late 19th century, currants were produced commercially as well as in-home gardens.
Growing on shrubs that reach 3 to 5 feet in height and width, currants are distinguishable from gooseberries by their thornless canes and smaller, rounder fruits that are produced in colorful clusters that dangle. The green, lobed leaves are much like those of gooseberries. Currants are tart, sweet, and can be eaten fresh or in desserts and jellies.
Though ripening times may vary a bit depending on variety, most currants bear fruit in early summer. While many red and black currant varieties yield abundant harvests, it takes time for currants to become established. Expect fruit after about three years.
Though the Latin name, Ribes rubrum, refers to red fruit, some red currant varieties, including the WPBR-resistant ‘Imperial White’, bear white fruit. Pink currants, like ‘Pink Champagne’ (not WPBR-resistant) result from crosses between red and white varieties. Traditionalists can choose vigorous classic red-berried plants, such as the WPBR-resistant ‘Red Lake‘.
Ribes nigrum shrubs produce black fruits. We recommend the Scottish ‘Ben Sarek‘, which is resistant to the White Pine Blister Rust disease. ‘Consort‘ and ‘Titania‘ are also resistant, according to Ohio State University. One for beauty as well as fruit is ‘Crandall’, a highly ornamental black currant variety that bears fragrant spring flowers and has brilliant red fall leaves.
Cultural requirements for currants are similar to those for gooseberries. Currants are also self-fertile, but if you are growing multiple shrubs of either currants or gooseberries, space them 3 feet apart.
The plants are not always tolerant of hot summers. Gardeners in areas with high summer temperatures should plant the shrubs in light shade and keep them well watered in hot weather.
For an intriguing combination of gooseberry and currant, grow jostaberry (Ribes x nidigrolaria), a hybrid of gooseberry and black currant varieties. The shrubs have the thornless nature of currants, with large, near-black fruit combining flavor notes from both parent species. Shrub size and cultural requirements are similar to those of currants and gooseberries.
Be Aware of Federal and State Bans
The severity of White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR), which arrived in the United States in the 1890s, means that non-resistant currants and gooseberries are banned in some areas. In 1911, the spread of WPBR resulted in a Federal government ban on the importation and cultivation of currants and gooseberries. In 1966, the Federal quarantine was lifted, but many states continued to restrict the cultivation of the fruits. A number of states have now also eased restrictions, while breeders have developed disease-resistant cultivars.
Before you invest in gooseberries or currants, check with your local cooperative extension service or state department of agriculture about any restrictions in your state or region. Red currants and gooseberries are generally less restricted than black currants.