The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Gooseberries and currants: Ribes sp.

Gooseberry and red, black, and white currant fruitI'm familiar with currants and gooseberries by name alone since my New England relatives grew the bushes in their gardens.  I'd barely tasted the fruits and wasn't all that excited until I read that currants were a favorite of Robert Hart's since they will produce fruit even in the shade.  As usual, Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention had answers to all of my top questions.

What's the difference between a currant and a gooseberry?  Gooseberries and black, white, and red currants are all in the Ribes genus.  Gooseberries are a hybrid of R. uva-crispa and R. hirtellum, and they counteract their big thorns with large, sweet berries.  Currants are thornless, but have smaller fruits that are quite tart and are less often eaten uncooked.  They come in two categories --- black currants are a mixture of R. nigrum, R. odoratum, and R. americanum and red and white currants are both a mixture of R. rubrum, R. sativum, and R. petraeum.  Both kinds of currants are unrelated to the raisin-like "currants", which are actually a dried grape like any other raisin.

Where can I grow currants and gooseberries?  Currants and gooseberries are great for northern climates (some are even hardy in zone 2), and some can be grown further south.  In all cases, if you're planting them toward the southern end of their range (below zone 5), you should give them some shade, perhaps plant them on the north side of a hill, and mulch them heavily to keep moisture around their roots.  Gooseberries are often listed as growing all the way to zone 8, while currants are often listed only down to zone 5 or 6.

Pruning diagram for currants and gooseberriesHow do I grow and prune them?  Plant currant and gooseberry bushes four to six feet apart in heavy soil with plenty of organic matter.  Each year, thin out the new shoots so that only two or three stems for red currants or six stems for gooseberries remain from that year, leaving older stems in place.  After three years for currants or four years for gooseberries, begin to remove the oldest set of stems as well during the winter pruning.  The result is a mixture of stems of different ages ranging from one to three years for currants and from one to four years for gooseberries.  Pruning for black currants is a bit different since these bushes bear primarily on one year old wood --- cut out two to five of the oldest branches each year and shorten other branches.

How do I propagate gooseberries and currants?  All can be grown from seed as long as you don't mind them not breeding true; the seeds require three to four months of stratification, and will bear at two to three years.  To maintain your varieties, use one of the several methods of cloning instead.  Twelve inch long hardwood cuttings (excluding the tip) should be taken in the early fall before all the leaves have dropped for gooseberries, or in early spring, autumn, or the end of summer for currants.  An even easier way to propagate gooseberries or black currants is tip layering --- bending down a branch and covering it with soil and a rock, then cutting the new plant free once roots have formed.

What about the white pine blister rust?  The reason that gooseberries and currants are seldom grown in the United States is that they were illegal for decades.  In the early twentieth century, the white pine blister rust showed up in America and began wiping out what was then an important timber tree.  Since some Ribes species were an alternate host for the rust, planting gooseberries or currants was prohibited by federal law, and Civilian Conservation Corps crews began to rip the plants out of gardens and woodlands.  Later, scientists discovered that most cultivated Ribes are resistant to white pine blister rust and don't spread the disease, and the federal ban was finally lifted in 1966.  However, you may still face state restrictions against planting gooseberries and currants, especially against black currants which are most susceptible to the white pine blister rust.

Why are gooseberries and currants permaculture favorites?  Permaculture advocates filling every available niche with a useful plant so that weeds don't have a spot to gain a foothold.  Since gooseberries and currants can fruit in partial shade, they can be used to turn orchards from trees-amid-lawn to a multi-storied forest garden.

Are you growing them?  We ordered two gooseberries (Poorman and Invicta) that will be arriving this month.  We chose gooseberries over currants since I am first and foremost a fresh fruit fanatic.

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This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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We had gooseberries (like the green ones in the picture) in our garden when I was growing up. I remember them as having a very sour taste. Personally, I didn't like them.
Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Apr 8 12:37:55 2010
I've read that most people pick gooseberries too early --- it's a bit hard to tell when they're ripe if you've got the green variety. If you pick them too young, they will be quite sour and untasty, but I tried some that had started to turn a bit yellow and found them to have just the right combination of sweet and sour. (Of course, I like things sour --- I don't eat raw lemons, but I do like apples with quite a tang to them.) There also seems to be a lot of varietal differences --- maybe the variety you had was not one of the tastier ones! It's probably worth another shot.
Comment by anna Thu Apr 8 12:47:57 2010
i think gooseberries make better pie where currants are better fresh or made into jam.
Comment by Milly Sue Fri Jun 10 16:25:47 2011
That's interesting! Most people tell me that currants are a lot more sour, which is why people tend to cook with them. Of course, with my newfound love of fruit leather, what I'll probably try first is gooseberry a few years when the bushes are overloaded.
Comment by anna Fri Jun 10 19:57:52 2011
I ate fresh red currants in Ireland and loved them. I remember them as tart but not overpoweringly so (not like a cranberry, for example). I'm so excited to read that these plants like shade. I've been wanting to plant currants for a long time and have few sunny spots. Now I'm encouraged to try gooseberries, too.
Comment by Wynne Tue May 29 10:57:44 2012
Wynne --- I definitely like tart fruit --- maybe I'll have to give red currants a try! We just opened up another shady spot this spring.... :-)
Comment by anna Tue May 29 15:47:30 2012

Hi, I live in Portsmouth UK and have just seen your blog on Currants while searching for jam recipes. You mention Blackcurrants and Gooseberries and I wondered if you had heard of a cross between the two, namely the Jostaberry? It is quite a vigorous plant and when fully ripe tastes like a large Mellow Blackcurrant and the leaves look like a Blackcurrant but don't have the distinctive Blackcurrant smell when crushed and it has no spines. Mine is cropping now, (July), along with my Redcurrants and Whitecurrants hence the search for Jam recipes! Here's a couple of links: Happy harvesting!

Comment by Jeanette Jones Sun Jul 14 04:39:11 2013
We brought gooseberries fruits in the summer and my children asked to keep the seeds. We were sure they hadn't done anything but we found a six plants today that have tiny berries and flowers on. One of them seems to have self seeded by our pond. We are really excited about this and looking forward to having them as part of our small forest garden.
Comment by Gina Mon Nov 10 11:55:24 2014
Gina --- What fun! I hope you'll stop back by once your seedlings start to bear and let us know if they bred true.
Comment by anna Mon Nov 10 19:04:11 2014

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