Ribes species (currants and gooseberries) are one of the forgotten gems in the homesteader’s arsenal of plant species. Currants are an extremely hardy (to -30F.), highly productive, and long lived perennial berry. They are tolerant of most soils, and produce well from full to partial shade. Currants prefer well drained soil, as water logged roots severely hamper growth and vigor. Like many berries ribes have a relatively shallow root system so they can be prone to drying out. A hearty layer of mulch does them well. Currants come in several varieties the most common of which are red, white, and black. Red and white currants are considered to be the same species, while the black currant is separate. Gooseberries come in a variety of colors, but are all considered the same species. An interesting hybrid of black currant and gooseberry call jostaberry combines the most desirable traits of the two.
Currants and gooseberries, when eaten fresh, are generally pretty tart in flavor. They are commonly used in jellies, jams, and as pie filling. Dried currants make a fine stand in for raisins in many
recipes (not quite as sweet, with a little tart kick, quite a nice change!). The concentrated juice of the black currants makes a refreshing and healthful tonic when mixed with a little soda water and perhaps a borage leaf for garnish. Black currants are popular in Europe for their high vitamin C content, anti-viral properties, and delicious flavor.
Ribes fell out of favor in the States at the turn of the last century after the introduction of white pine blister rust. It was discovered that currants and gooseberries were carriers of the disease, which decimated thousands of acres of valuable white pine forests across the country. Many states banned the sale and production of ribes species, and actively sought to destroy existing plants. Needless to say this was ineffective and most such bans have been lifted at this point.
In the homestead garden these versatile beauties fill many niches. I currently have gooseberries, red currants, and jostaberries ( a cross of black currant and gooseberry) planted in my hugelkulture berms near the greenhouse. They appreciate the well drained soil, and moisture retention of this type of garden bed (really cool combination of soil traits don’t you think!?!). They are interplanted with raspberries, rhubarb, comfrey, and annuals. I’ve chosen a staggered, three foot spacing for the perennials with the annuals filling in the spaces in between. Ribes also fair well as an understory planting out near the drip line or your orchard trees. They will compete somewhat with your trees for moisture, but they also help to shade out the grasses to keep your understory clear. I started several red currants from seed this year and hope to utilize them in this manner next season. Black currants are on the shopping list, as are more gooseberries. As an aside, I noticed some gooseberries growing wild on our property this spring so I may try to do some propagation through cuttings this fall…we shall see. Ribes are said to be one of the easier species to propagate this way, and I’m all about cheap and easy so you may see a post on that in the future.
If you live in the cool/cold temperate climate like we do give currants and gooseberries a try. They are sure to please both the palette and medicine chest. This forgotten, and humble Homestead Hero deserves a place in every homestead berry patch or orchard!