Red American gooseberries

ChiloquinNews article 9/26/2011


Few Americans have seen or tasted a gooseberry or currant, let alone grown one. They are rarely offered here in stores or even at Farmer’s Markets or gourmet restaurants.

Ribes fruit, grown commerically in Europe and Russia, is marketed almost entirely as frozen berries, juice, jam or jelly. Black currants are also used in many desserts, such as pies, while red currants are mostly made into jelly and jam, and delicious it is! Gooseberries are made into jams, pies and desserts. The berries can also be made into sour sauces, or used as flavor heighteners (like lemon). Black currant flavor is quite a different taste experience. Try it – you might just like it.

The Sierra gooseberry, a native, makes a very tasty jelly, but is tricky to pick.

Picking currants is a breeze, but picking gooseberries is definitely hazardous. They are thorny! However, the Canadian Experiment Station has developed some thornless types of English plants, including the relatively thornless Captivator, a red variety. It is interesting that all descriptions of thornless gooseberries include the qualifyer “relatively”.

The genus Ribes is native to the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere. Europe, Asia, and North America all have native species.The genus contains about 150 species, the most notable being black, red and white currants and gooseberries. There are North American gooseberries (R. hirtellum) and European gooseberries (R. grossularia). Native gooseberries and currants can be tasty, but often are not, though the birds are always very happy to have them. It’s best to plant named cultivars if you want them for their fruit. While there are several named cultivars of red, white and black currants, there are thousands of cultivars of gooseberries. We can blame the English for this.

British gardeners have never neglected gooseberries; in fact, they have a taste for them that borders on the fanatical. Gooseberries have been cultivated in Britain since the early sixteenth century. They had been raised elsewhere in Europe, Asia, and Africa some two thousand years before that, and no one knows how they arrived in Britain. English gooseberry fairs, held for 300 years now, have encouraged the development of thousands of varieties and led to the introduction of gooseberries with red, pink, yellow, green, and even white skins. They were developed for flavor, size, fresh eating and cooking. The yellows supposedly have the best flavor for eating out of hand. Some English gooseberries are the size of small apples!

Disease has restricted production in North America, as well as a federal ban on cultivation of Ribes spp. imposed in the early 1900’s, because they serve as an alternate host for white pine blister rust and white pine was a major timber species at that time. The federal ban was rescinded in 1966, but some states in the US still ban cultivation of black currants – fortunately, not Oregon.

Because they are extremely cold hardy, require a long chilling period, ripen quickly, and are intolerant of hot summers, gooseberries and currants are well-suited to Chiloquin. All varieties are self-fruitful; that is, one gooseberry bush doesn’t require other gooseberry bushes planted nearby to ensure pollination and fruit. They are pretty shrubs that bear heavily a short time after planting, take up little room, require little care, and, if lack of sun is a problem in your garden, are the most shade tolerant of all fruits. While they would prefer soil a little more acid that what we can provide, they are doing well on my alkaline soil. Just pile the compost on and that will help reduce the alkalinity and keep the roots cool. They do require watering, but don’t need a lot.

The American cultivars of both currants and gooseberries are best suited to this country, but I think that here in Chiloquin we can get away with some of those English gooseberry cultivars too. I presently have American varieties, but feel compelled to to try one of the English varieties which are described as “certainly by far the superior in taste and size” which “generally do not thrive except in the cool, dry regions of the Pacific coast”.


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