Currants and gooseberries (Ribes species) are berry- producing shrubs which have been grown in the United States since colonial times. (The 3 types of currants are red, white, and black. American and European are the 2 types of gooseberries.) Plants are hardy, easy to grow, and their fruit make excellent jams, jellies, preserves, and pies. Currants and gooseberries are also attractive shrubs that fit well into the home landscape. Despite these attributes, currants and gooseberries are not widely grown today. Their lack of popularity is due to unfamiliarity, the home gardener's preference for other fruit species, and disease problems. Early in the 1900's, white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) became a serious disease problem in the United States. White pine blister rust requires both a Ribes species and white pine to complete its life cycle. The disease causes little harm to currants and gooseberries, but is often deadly to white pines. In an attempt to prevent the spread of white pine blister rust, the federal government banned the planting and cultivation of currants and gooseberries early in the twentieth century. The federal government lifted the ban in 1966. Several states, however, still ban the planting and cultivation of black currants. (Black currants are very susceptible to white pine blister rust, gooseberries and red and white currants are somewhat resistant.) Interest in currants and gooseberries has increased in recent years.
Currants and gooseberries have similar growing requirements. They prefer cool, moist, well-drained sites. Avoid poorly drained, wet soils and hot, dry sites. To discourage fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew, select sites with good air movement. Currants and gooseberries do well in partial to full sun.
Currants and gooseberries are self-fruitful. A single plant will produce fruit. Three to four currant or gooseberry plants should produce enough fruit for the average family. Home gardeners can choose from the following suggested varieties.
Red Lake was developed at the University of Minnesota. Plants produce clusters of large, red berries which possess a mild flavor. Red Lake is a hardy, vigorous, upright shrub. It is considered by many to be the best red currant variety.
Wilder originated in Indiana. Plants produce large clusters of bright red berries. The berries mature earlier, but are slightly smaller than Red Lake.
White Imperial produces medium to large berries. Fruit are white with a pink blush. Excellent flavor. Considered by some to be the best tasting of all currants. White currants are not widely sold. Availability may be a problem.
Consort was developed in Ottawa, Canada. This variety, along with Crusader and Coronet, are resistant to white pine blister rust. Consort produces clusters of soft, black berries which possess a sweet, musky flavor. Plants develop into 4 to 6 foot shrubs.
Fruit of European varieties are larger and better flavored than American varieties. However, European varieties are more susceptible to diseases. Most gooseberries grown in home gardens are American varieties.
Pixwell originated in North Dakota. Berries are medium- sized, turn rosy-pink when fully ripe, and are mild flavored. Fruit quality is fair to good. Plants are moderately vigorous, very productive, and possess some resistance to powdery mildew.
Poorman produces medium to large, high quality berries. They turn pinkish red when fully mature. Considered by many to be the best American gooseberry. Plants are vigorous and productive. Welcome originated at the University of Minnesota. The medium-sized berries turn pinkish-red when fully ripe. Their flavor is mildly tart. Plants are vigorous, upright shrubs.
An excellent time to plant currants and gooseberries is early spring. Space plants about 4 to 5 feet apart with 6 to 8 feet between rows. Set plants slightly deeper than they grew in the nursery. Prior to planting, cut the shoots back to 6 to 10 inches above ground level.
Apply a mulch around currants and gooseberries to conserve moisture and control weeds. Place 2 to 4 inches of straw, grass clippings, sawdust, or wood chips around each plant and replenish annually to this depth.
Currants and gooseberries need to be pruned to maximize fruit production. The growth and fruiting characteristics of currants and gooseberries are similar, so their pruning techniques are essentially the same.
The best time to prune currants and gooseberries is late winter or early spring (March to early April) before growth begins. Ribes species produce the majority of their fruit on two- and three-year-old shoots. Shoots 4 years and older produce very little fruit. After the first growing season, remove all but 6 to 8 vigorous, healthy shoots. The following year, leave 4 or 5 one-year-old shoots and 3 or 4 two-year-old canes. After the third growing season, keep 3 or 4 shoots each of one-, two-, and three-year-old growth. A properly pruned, established plant should consist of 9 to 12 shoots. Pruning of mature plants consists of pruning out all four-year-old shoots and thinning out some of the new growth.
Gardeners who do not have space in the home fruit garden can incorporate currants and gooseberries into the residential landscape. They can function as ornamental and fruit producing shrubs. Currants and gooseberries can be planted as a single specimen, in groups, or as hedges.
This article originally appeared in the March 17, 1995 issue, pp. , 1995 issue, pp. 21-22.