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Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 47 acres of botanical bliss fronting the Pacific Ocean

Currants

A sweet treat for you from your garden!

Botanical Name: Ribes spp. Comman Name: Currant Family: Saxifragaceae 

Description: Currants are in the genus Ribes, which includes gooseberries and a number of wild species that have become available as ornamental shrubs. These plants are not the source of the dried currants sold as a type of raisin; their fruits are berries, and they are related to the large family that includes roses, legumes, stone fruits, strawberries and blackberries.

A multi-stemmed deciduous shrub, black currants (R. nigrum) can grow to 5 or 6 feet high and wide; red and white currants (R. sativum) are smaller. The soft green leaves are lobed and toothed, up to 3" wide. Stems are smooth, not thorny. Fruits are small berries enclosing a couple of tiny seeds.

Cultivation: Plants prefer a light, fast-draining, slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-7.0) and do not tolerate high sodium. Peat moss may be added to sandy soil, and compost and well-rotted manure are the only fertilizers needed in a loamy soil. Clay soils will need amendments to correct acidity and tilth. Native to cool climate areas, currants require afternoon shade in places with high summer temperatures. They are hardy to USDA zones 3-5, and are fairly drought-tolerant, needing little water on the coast.

Propagation: Plant bare-root plants in spring, and allow 3 years for full fruit production. Black currants are self-sterile, and two should be planted to ensure pollination (but in my garden, having just one black currant has not been a problem). Currants may also be planted to form hedgerows. For hedgerow planting, it's suggested that red currants be planted about 3 feet apart and black currants about 5 feet apart. Dig a hole wide and deep enough to allow roots to spread out, put in plant, fill with soil then water in, if soil is dry, and tamp down to eliminate air pockets. Mulch to protect roots from drying out. Use prunings (see below) to form new plants by sticking an 8-12" piece deeply in the ground or in a gallon pot filled with a mix of soil and rooting medium; only the topmost bud should be exposed. Pruning: Black currants bear fruit on newer wood, and a fourth to a third of two-year-old stems may be pruned out yearly after the plants have been in the ground for three years. Red and white currants bear on branches up to three years old. Prune older branches back to the ground or main trunk in late fall or winter; on older plants, the fruiting branch may be pruned back at harvest time.

Common Problems: Black currants are a host of the white pine blister rust; white pines are an economically important lumber tree common on the east coast but not in the west. Mildew is a sign that the plant needs better air circulation.

Recipe: To make cassis, rinse, drain, and crush 1 cup fresh ripe black currants, add 2 cups vodka or brandy, and put in a jar that can be tightly closed. Steep in a dark closet for one week, shaking jar occasionally. Strain and filter (or just mash through a tea or flour strainer). Return to jar with ¾ cup of sugar syrup (boil 2 parts water with 1 part sugar till clear, then let stand 1-2 minutes). Steep another month or two, shaking the jar gently every few day. Note: Acidity and pectin content of the berries follows color: the whiter type being sweeter, the red mostly used for jelly, and the black, having a distinctive foxy flavor, is used for juice, jam and the liqueur cassis. Black currants are five times as high in Vitamin C as oranges, and are rich in anthocyanins. Sources: Leverett, Brian. Practical Fruit Growing. 1992, The Crowood Press, Wiltshire, UK Otto, Stella. The Backyard Berry Book. 1995, Otto Graphics, Maple City, MI. Reich, Lee. Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention. 1991, Addison-Wesley Publ. Co. Sunset eds. How to Grow Fruits, Nuts & Berries. l984, Lane Publ. Co. Sunset eds. Sunset Western Garden Book. 1998, Lane Publ. Co.

Submitted by Master Gardener Henrietta Bensussen, 2007.