Common Name: Currant, Blackcurrant, Red Currant, White Currant
Scientific Name: Ribes species
Family: Grossulariaceae (the Currant or Gooseberry family)
Common Species: there are over 150 species in the Ribes genus. The Gooseberries were discussed previously in this article. The “flowering currants” are not discussed in this article. While there are a number of very uncommon edible currants, it is the common edible currants that are discussed below:
- Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum): A more cold-hardy currant distributed throughout Europe with fair flavor.
- American Black Currant (Ribes americanum): Our native Black Currant. I’ve never tried this species. Reports on flavor range from very poor to very good. This probably has to do with location, plant, and personal preference.
- Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): Native to western North America, these currants reportedly have a good to very good flavor.
- Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): This is the most widely grown currant with many varieties available.
- Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): This North American native has clove-scented flowers and can produce small batches of very good flavored fruit. This would be a prime plant for breeding/selective improvements.
- Rock Red Currant (Ribes petraeum): A less common European species.
- Trailing Red Currant (Ribes procumbens): A very low-growing Asian currant with good flavored fruit.
- Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): There are a number of red-fruited currant species that all have the name “Red Currant”, but this species has had many names in its past. Ribes rubrum is sometimes called Ribes sylvestre or Ribes sativum or Ribes vulgare, and you will still see these names in older publications (or with writers who aren’t aware of the taxonomic updates). These fruits are more tart than Blackcurrant, but full of flavor. They typically can tolerate more shade than Blackcurrants.
- Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): this is actually an albino sport of the Redcurrant, and it has a mild flavor and a pale color. Depending of the cultivar, the fruit color can range from almost translucent white to salmon to pink to yellow. These other colors are often sold as
- American Red Currant (Ribes triste): Our native Red Currant. Good flavor, very tart, with a lot of seeds.
- Downy Currant (Ribes warszewiczii): A Siberian currant with very good flavor.
Currants are one of my favorite uncommon fruits in the United States. Many other countries know and love them, and I think Americans are just reawakening to this small shrub thanks to their high antioxidant content. But apart from their health benefits, they are quite tasty fruit, albeit a bit tart when eaten fresh. Currants are shade-tolerant, provide food and shelter to wildlife, and while their leaves are edible, they are more commonly dried and used for tea. In addition, many currants can be quite beautiful plants. Unless you live in an area that restricts their presence, then I would highly recommend the addition of currants to your property.
The Blackcurrant is native to temperate central and north Europe and northern Asia. The Redcurrant is native to western Europe and Britain. The Blackcurrant was cultivated as early at the 11th century in Russian monasteries. It was mainly used as a medicinal for many centuries. In the UK during the 1940’s (and World War II), Blackcurrants were used as a primary vitamin C source, and the government distributed Blackcurrant syrup to children under age of 2 years for no charge. Historians make a good argument that this is the reason for the lasting popularity of Blackcurrants in Britain. Blackcurrants were also popular fruits in North America, but once the White Pine Blister Rust (see below) threatened the timber industry in the U.S., a federal ban was placed on growing this plant. The federal ban was lifted in 1966, and only a few states still have existing bans. The contemporary focus on antioxidants, along with Blackcurrants’ high antioxidant levels, have combined to bring about a resurgence in awareness of this fruit. Although, the Blackcurrants previous popularity has not yet returned.
- Blackcurrant is very high in vitamin C and antioxidants.
- Blackcurrant seed oil is being investigated for its health properties (similar to grapeseed oil).
- Zante Currants or Corithian Raisins (often just called “Currants”) are dried, seedless grapes (a.k.a. Raisins) from the small ‘Black Corinth’ grape (Vitis vinifera). These are not related to the true currants of the Ribes genus. These are tasty little raisins.
- Jostaberry (Ribes x nidigrloaria) is a tetraploid cross of the Blackcurrant (R. nigrum), the western North American Spreading or Coast Gooseberry (R. divaricatum), and the European Gooseberry (R. uva-crispa). These have a taste that falls somewhere between Blackcurrants and Gooseberries, and there are a number of varieties available.
- Cider & Black is a drink that combines Blackcurrant cordial with hard cider.
- Lager & Black is a drink that combines Blackcurrant cordial with lager beer.
- Snakebite & Black (a.k.a. Diesel) is a drink that combines Blackcurrant cordial with lager and hard cider.
- Johannisbeerschorle is a German drink made from Redcurrant syrup and soda water.
- Bar-le-duc or Lorraine Jelly is a hand-made jelly produced in the town of Bar-le-duc, France using whole, seeded Redcurrants or White Currants. It is highly prized and considered an elite food product. The seeds are traditionally removed with goose quills, and Here is a great article about this culinary gem.
White Pine Blister Rust:
This is a fungal disease that infects White Pine trees (Pinus, subgenus Strobus) and causes serious damage or death to these commercially important trees. The problem with White Pine Blister Rust is that it requires two host plants to complete its life cycle. One host are the White Pines. The other host can be one of a few genera of Broomrapes (small, flowering plants), but most commonly it is the Ribes (Gooseberries and Currants). The rust is native to Asia, and it was accidentally introduced to North America in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. Seedlings and young trees are the most susceptible. Alternatively, the infection on Gooseberries and Currants is usually minimal, especially in Redcurrants and Gooseberries. Also, there are a number of immune or resistant Blackcurrant cultivars now available. In infected Ribes species, the leaves may get chlorotic spots (light spots), and they may turn orange-brown and fall off early. But then the leaves fall off anyway in Autumn, and the infection is done. Many places in North America have banned the import and growing of Ribes species, and while some locations still have these policies (especially in New England), this management has not been very effective due to alternate hosts and wild Ribes species. I recommend checking with your local state’s Agriculture Extension Service/Department. Look to plant resistant cultivars especially if you have a lot of susceptible pines.
USING THIS PLANT
- Fresh eating – All currants can be eaten fresh, but many are very tart, especially Redcurrants. The tarter varieties are often used raw in small amounts in salads, fruit dishes, and as an edible garnish.
- Cooked – Preserves, jellies, jams, fruit leathers (may need to be mixed with more fibrous fruit juices/pulps), compotes, and desserts are significantly more common than raw currants and can be exquisite. Cooked currants also pairs with flavorful meats (lamb, venison, and other and game meats) or poultry (turkey, goose, pheasant, etc.).
- Syrup – This is another common use of currants and can be used in salad dressings, desserts, and drinks.
- Juice – This is a growing market as the juice is very high if vitamin C and other antioxidants. Typically combined with other juices before serving.
- Primary or secondary/adjunct flavoring in wines, cordials, liqueur, and other alcoholic beverages, including herbal beers. Here is an interesting article on Blackcurrant Leaf and Nettle Beer.
- Medicinal Plant – The leaves and fruit are often used medicinally.
- Tea Plant – The leaves can be dried and used as a tea or used with herbal tea mixes.
- Edible Leaves – Young, tender leaves are edible, and most commonly used in soups, although I have yet to try this. I cannot find any source that states the leaves need to be cooked first, but all recipes use cooked leaves. I do not know if, for instance, the leaves contain any toxins that are destroyed with cooking, or if the leaves just taste better when cooked and used when mixed with other flavors. I’ve even seen a recipe for Blackcurrant Leaf Ice Cream!
- Dye Plant – The leaves and fruit have been used as a natural dye.
- Wildlife Food – many animals will eat the fruit, especially birds!
- Wildlife Shelter – mainly birds and small mammals find refuge in the mini-thickets these plants can form.
- General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
- Hummingbird Plant – these plants have nectar for Hummingbirds
- Blackcurrant syrup has long been used as a treatment for sore throats and cough in children, but it can also be used to flavor soda or tonic water, teas, other juices, or mixed drinks.
- Blackcurrant syrup is a pretty simple recipe. It consists of roughly one part sweetener, one part water, and two parts fruit. The sweetener is dissolved in the water over heat, and then the fruit is added. Boil for 5-10 minutes, then remove from the heat for a few minutes. Mash the fruit (a potato masher works well for this). Return to boil for another few minutes to make sure the juice is all extracted. Some people will add lemon juice or citric acid at this point. Strain the juice through a fine sieve, muslin, or jelly bag. Pour into sterile jars and keep refrigerated.
Yield: Variable, but an established Blackcurrant bush can produce up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg) per year/3-5 quarts/3-5 liters. Redcurrants produce a little less than Blackcurrants. Clove Currant can produce 4-8 pounds (1.8-3.6 kg) per plant. White Currants, being significantly smaller, produce even less.
Harvesting: Harvest in mid to late Summer. The longer the fruits stays on the plant, the sweeter they become. Although, this give birds more chance at eating them. The more “wild” species (ones with no varieties) will ripen more unevenly, so these plants may need to be harvested a few times.
Storage: Use within 1-2 weeks.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
- Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum): Zone 2-7
- American Black Currant (Ribes americanum): Zone 3
- Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): Zone 3
- Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): Zone 4-8
- Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): Zone 3b-8
- Rock Red Currant (Ribes petraeum): Zone 5-9
- Trailing Red Currant (Ribes procumbens): Zone 3-7
- Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 5-9
- Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 5-9
- American Red Currant (Ribes triste): Zone 3
- Downy Currant (Ribes warszewiczii): Zone 3-7
AHS Heat Zone: AHS Heat Zones have not been defined for most of these plants (that I can find!), but most prefer less heat-stress locations.
- Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): Zone 7-1
- Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): Zone 9-3
- Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 7-1
- Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): Zone 7-1
Chill Requirement: Blackcurrants need 1,200-2,500 chill hours/units. Redcurrants need 800-1,500 chill hours/units. The farther north the range of the native plant, typically the higher chill requirement.
Plant Type: Small Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available. This is a nice Cornell review of some popular Ribes varieties, and here is a very extensive list of cultivars available, also from Cornell.
Pollination: Ribes are self-fertile, but Blackcurrant cultivars will fruit significantly better with insect-mediated cross-pollination of other cultivars. Clove Currant will also produce better with cross-pollination.
Flowering: Early to Mid Spring
- Years to Begin Fruiting: 3 years
- Years to Maximum Fruiting: 3-4 years
- Years of Useful Life: Not defined for most Ribes species, but Redcurrants can still fruit for 10-15 years, and Blackcurrants have been known to still be productive at 15-20 years of age.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
- Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum): 3-4 feet (0.9-1.2 meters) tall and 2-3 feet (0.6-0.9 meters) wide.
- American Black Currant (Ribes americanum): 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) tall and wide.
- Golden Currant (Ribes aureum): 3-8 feet (0.9-2.4 meters) tall and 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) wide.
- Blackcurrant or Black Currant (Ribes nigrum): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and wide.
- Clove Currant or Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum): 6-12 feet (1.8-3.6 meters) tall and wide.
- Rock Red Currant (Ribes petraeum): 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) tall and wide.
- Trailing Red Currant (Ribes procumbens): 8 inches (20 cm) tall and 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide.
- Redcurrant or Red Currant (Ribes rubrum): 3.5-5 feet (1-1.5 meters) tall and wide. Up to 7 feet (2 meters) tall on occasion.
- Whitecurrant or White Currant (Ribes rubrum): 2-3 feet (0.6-0.9 meter) tall and wide.
- American Red Currant (Ribes triste): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and wide.
- Downy Currant (Ribes warszewiczii): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.5 meters) tall and wide.
Roots: For the species that have been defined, most have fibrous or heart-shaped root patterns, and the American species often sucker (produces new plants from underground runners).
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast.
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade and can grow in fairly deep shade, but fruiting is substantially reduced.
Moisture: Prefers moist soils. Can tolerate pretty wet soils, but does not tolerate dry soils.
pH: As a very general rule, European/Asian Ribes prefer more acidic soils, and the American Ribes prefer a bit more alkaline soils; however, both do well at close to neutral.
Special Considerations for Growing:
Ribes tolerate juglone, a chemical produced by black walnuts that can be toxic to other plants (killing or severely stunting them), so Currants can be used as a buffer plant between your black walnuts and your other forest garden plants.
Most common propagated with seed; needs cold stratification for 12 weeks. Can also be propagated via cuttings, and this is how cultivars are propagated.
- With many Currants, about one-third of all stems can be cut out at just above ground level after leaf die-back in Autumn. The first to be pruned should be older stems with the least new growth. The goal is that fruits will be borne on spurs of 2-3 year old wood. Redcurrants need to be pruned less, unless you want to trigger new wood growth.
- May need potassium supplementation (aka Potash) to maintain good fruiting.
- Susceptible to White Pine Blister Rust as noted above. If in an area of concern, then choose resistant varieties.
Subscribe to TCPermaculture.com and receive updates whenever a new article is posted!