In the Garden:
Red currant fruits look like tiny jewels as they hang in long clusters on the shrub.
At the house where I grew up, the backyard held a small patch of red currant bushes, planted by the previous owner. The neighborhood kids and I were attracted to the small, translucent red fruits that hung like jeweled clusters on the plants, but we learned to take only a taste rather than a handful of the tart berries that had just a hint of sweetness. It was only much later that I discovered the real potential of currants, as the basis of beautifully colored and delicious jelly and jam.
But then came the rumors of illegality. Was I breaking the law by planting these seemingly innocuous bushes? Many nurseries seemed to carry the plants and there was renewed interest by both cooks and gardeners alike. So I decided it was time to find out more about how to grow these plants and whether or not I'd be breaking the law if I did so.
Red, White, and Black
Currants, which along with gooseberries are members of the genus Ribes, have a long history as a crop in this country. In fact, at the start of the twentieth century, over 12,000 acres were in commercial production. Although many Ribes species are natives, most plants grown for fruit are introduced species -- black currant (R. nigrum), red currant (R. sativum, R. rubrum, R. petraeum) and white and pink currants, which are cultivars of red currant.
Rust Never Sleeps
Then came white pine blister rust (WPBR), imported to this country on infected pine seedlings in the 1890s. This fungus disease has a complex life cycle that requires both a Ribes plant and one of several kinds of pine, including the economically important white pine, as alternate hosts. WPBR doesn't do much damage to currants, but it can kill white pines. To protect this valuable timber tree, the federal government issued a quarantine in the 1920s on the importation and cultivation of any Ribes species, and efforts were made to eradicate them from the wild. The federal restrictions were lifted in 1966, but individual states could still impose restrictions. Many states continued to ban plantings of black currants, the species most susceptible to WPBR, and restrict the placement of other currants and gooseberries.
So where are we today? With the development of new, WPBR-resistant black currant varieties, some states in our region have relaxed their rules. Connecticut and Vermont allow all currants statewide; Maine prohibits all black currants; Massachusetts bans black currants and allows red or white currants and gooseberries only in certain towns; Rhode Island prohibits some Ribes species and requires permits for other types; New York allows any WPBR-resistant black and all red or white currants statewide and non-resistant cultivars in some areas; and New Hampshire bans non-WPBR-resistant black currant varieties. Whew! Unless you garden in Vermont or Connecticut, the best advice, particularly if you want to grow black currants, is to check with your state Extension Service or Agriculture Department before you invest in plants.
So why are currants worth all the bother? Well, for starters, they are full of vitamins and nutrients, especially black currants, which, according to the USDA Nutrition Handbook, are tops among fruits for Vitamin C, phosphorus, and potassium. They are also attractive shrubs that work well with the popular concept of edible landscaping. They easily take our New England winters, don't need a great deal of space, have few pest problems, and, oh yes, make wonderful jams and jellies. I have only grown the tart red currants, so I can't speak from personal experience, but horticulturist and writer Lee Reich, expert on all things "fruit," maintains in his new book, Grow Fruit Naturally, that black currants are also delicious fresh; he describes their flavor as "smoothed gin mellowed with a splash of sweetness."
All currants do best in moist, well-drained soil with a pH in the range of 5.5 to 7.0. They are shallow rooted plants and appreciate supplemental water during dry spells and a skirt of mulch to conserve soil moisture. Plants fruit best in full sun, but will take a little shade. Most reach about 5 feet tall. Space red currants 3-4 feet apart; give black currants a little more room at 4-5 feet apart. Fertilize in early spring before new growth begins.
Red and white currants are self-fruitful, but black currants produce bigger crops if more than one variety is planted. Some recommended red currant varieties include 'Red Lake' with large fruits with good flavor; 'Wilder', which has large berries and shows resistance to leaf spot; and 'Rovada', with very large fruit borne on long strings that make picking easy and excellent disease resistance. Black currant varieties that show resistance to WPBR include 'Belaruskaja', 'Consort', 'Ben Sarek', and 'Titania'. 'Blanka' is a white currant with pale fruits that are popular for winemaking.
Plants usually begin fruiting in late June to July in our region. Red currants can be harvested when they have developed their lovely red color or can be left on the bush for several weeks, getting a little sweeter all the while. But black currants don't keep as well on the plant and should be harvested as soon as they are ripe. If you are using the fruits for jams or jellies, pick them just as they begin to ripen for the highest natural pectin levels.
Red and white currants produce fruit on one, two, and three year old wood, so once plants are established, remove wood older than three years at ground level in early spring before growth begins and thin the newer growth. Black currants fruit mainly on one year old stems, so take out most of the older wood by cutting back to the ground or to a strong lower branch.
So don't get left behind. Stay "currant" by adding some of these beautiful, tasty fruits to your garden. But stay on the right side of the law -- be sure to abide by the regulations in your state.
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