Search
  • Jennifer Hoglin

Gooseberries and Currants

Updated: Apr 26

Well, I think it is about time we talk about gooseberries. We are called Gooseberry Gardens after all. And we are also going to include currants in this conversation, as they are all really closely related and require many of the same conditions. So why did we name our gardens and website after this fairly unknown berry? Well, because it is the absolute perfect fruit for our climate, that's why! They are totally okay with our clay soil and even tolerate its alkalinity. They are also some of the only fruit that will tolerate some shade. Add to that their small stature, and you have the perfect fruit for planting under larger fruit trees. Ideal for food forests! They are extremely cold tolerant with some of the wild varieties hardy even to zone 1 or 2. And they often have fabulous fall coloured fringed leaves. Did I mention they are also super yummy? And jam packed with vitamin C? There are a million reasons to grow these colourful berries!


photo by Pixaby

Gooseberries and currants are very closely related, being members of the same genus Ribes, however, they do have a few major differences. Gooseberries tend to have significantly larger fruit than currants and they have thorns on their stems. They are green or dark red when fully ripe. Many of the varieties sold here are a cross between the American types (Ribes hirtellum) and the European types (Ribes uvacrispa). Conversely, currants have smaller fruit that come in a variety of colours and the shrubs are are usually thornless. There is quite a lot of hybridizing between all of the these. There are also some crosses between gooseberries and currants, such as Jostaberry (see varieties below for more info).


Note that dried currants we purchase for baking are Zante currants, which are not currants at all. They are actually made from small Black Corinth grapes. It is these very small grapes that true currants (Ribes) are named after.

History


According to ancient texts, the ancient Romans were eating gooseberry-like fruits, but the first written account of confirmed gooseberries was in Willima Tuner's text "Herbal" in the 16th century. The name Ribes is based on the arabic word for rhubarb. It was thought that the flavour was similar to rhubarb stewed with sugar.


Both gooseberries and currants are native to Canada's prairie, aspen parkland, boreal forest and montane regions. That includes Calgary and area. It's no surprise they grow in our gardens so well! Native species include Canada gooseberry (Ribes oxycanthoides), Hairystem goosberry (Ribes hirtellum), American black currant (Ribes americanum) and Golden currant (Ribes aureum). They are also native to Europe and parts of Asia. Many European immigrants that travelled to Canada grew up with these fruits and the thousands of different varieties available back home.


Banned in the USA

Yes, you read that right. One of the major reasons these fruits are not more popular today, is because you could not physically purchase them for years. They were even ripped out of the ground in the wild. In the 1920s and 30s the US government banned them, as they were thought to be a host for white pine blister rust, a fungal disease that affected one of the country's major lumber crops. The federal ban was lifted in 1966, once the disease was controlled and resistant cultivars developed, but many individual states still have bans or restrictions in place. It has left both currants and gooseberries with a bad name and in serious need of some public relations help.



Growing Gooseberries and Currants


All of the Ribes available here are self fertile, so you only need one specimen to get fruit. That being said, each shrub will set larger amounts of fruit if there is a different variety within pollination distance. Those different varieties do need to be the same species, so be sure to check you labels. Black currants, especially, do better with more than one variety.


Where to grow

Ribes like part sun to full sun making them a perfect addition to the food forest. It's the heat they aren't partial to. Morning sun with afternoon shade is ideal. They truly don't mind our clay, alkaline soil and thrive in cool climates. Most are hardy to zone 3, with many wild varieties hardy to zone 2. If you remember only one thing about these berries, it is that they prefer to have cool roots and fairly moist soil. Make sure you use a thick mulch and keep them well watered.


The full size of the shrubs range from 3 to 5' tall and equally wide. When choosing a location, be sure to select their forever home. Both gooseberries and currants don't like to be moved once the are established. Shrubs should be planted approximately 5' apart, but can be positioned closer together if you are going for an edible hedge. They make great hedges, by the way! The thorns on gooseberries make them especially good for excluding wildlife. Gooseberries can also be trained up a trellis, saving you room and making picking the berries a little bit easier (see pruning below).


Planting

Plant your potted or transplanted shrubs anytime during the growing season, but try for a day that is not too sunny or hot (to prevent transplant shock). Bare root specimens should be planted in late fall or very early spring, before they leaf out. Dig a hole as deep and twice as wide as your pot. Fill you hole with water and wait for it to sink in. A handful of bone meal and/or Myke's (a beneficial mycorrhizal product) may be added to the hole at this time, but is not mandatory. Remove your shrub from its pot and gently massage the roots to loosen them. Place the plant in your hole, with the roots spread out, and backfill with your original soil. Gently tamp down the soil to ensure there are no air pockets. Ensure the level of the shrub is the same as it was in the pot. Water very well and top the surrounding soil with mulch.



Care & Maintenance

Gooseberries and currants are quite long lived, with a lifespan of around 30 years or more.

Ribes have shallow, very fine roots, so ensure the root zone is not disturbed. Disturbed roots will result in less fruit and more suckering. Keep the areas surrounding them well weeded (but don't dig too deep!) and remember to mulch. They resent being moved once established, but if you must, take as large a root ball with it as you possibly can. It will still take a couple years for it to stop resenting you and resume full production.


Keep your berries well watered. Just like with tomatoes, irregular watering can cause the fruit skins to crack as they develop or near harvest. High nitrogen fertilizers will increase leaf growth at the expense of berry production. It is best to stick with regular additions of compost for supplementation.


Pruning

Prune in very early spring or late winter before the leaf buds begin to swell. Prune back the ends of any branches that are touching the ground so they do not root (unless you want more plants, see propagation below). Red, white and pink currants and gooseberries produce fruit on 1-4 year old wood. Do not prune these for the first 3-5 years. To keep them productive after this point, remove the very oldest stems and keep 3-5 of the best new young shoots each year. This way you will have an ideal mix of 1 to 4 year old stems, maximizing the shrub's productivity. Remove suckers as they appear. Aim for an open structure to allow maximum light and air to reach the centre and ripen the berries. To train gooseberries up a trellis or stake, tie the leader at 1 foot intervals and prune side shoots back to 2 outward facing buds yearly. You can even espalier them!


Black currants need to be pruned differently. They produce most of their fruit on 1 year old stems. Therefore, it is helpful to remove some of the older unproductive branches (right back to the base) every year or so. This encourages new fruiting wood to form and results in more, and larger, berries. Do not cut back the tips of black currant branches as this will reduce fruit production.


Pests and Diseases

So white pine blister rust doesn't turn out to be a problem with cultivated varieties of Ribes (only Ribes nigrum were ever really an issue). The biggest pest issue for gooseberries and currants is the imported currant worm or currant sawfly (Nematus ribesii). These are the caterpillar of a type of sawfly. The caterpillars can completely decimate the leaves of a bush within one season, severely weakening the plant. If this happens repeatedly over a few seasons, it can end up killing the bush completely. Adult sawflies emerge from the soil in early June and lay eggs on the underside of the leaves. The eggs are small, white and elongated in shape, and are laid in neat rows along the bottom ribs of the leaves. Once the larvae hatch (the caterpillar phase) they proceed to devour as many leaves as possible, starting at the tips of the branches. Interestingly, they don't touch the fruit, so feel free to harvest those even if you have caterpillars present. Once the caterpillars are full and fully grown, they drop to the soil, where they overwinter and emerge the following year as adult sawflies. Because there is only one life cycle per year, control is quite simple and you can do it in a number of ways:

  • apply row covers in early June to prevent sawflies from laying eggs (note this only works if you don't already have insects overwintering the in the soil directly under your shrubs)

  • squish eggs as soon as you see them in early June

  • hand pick caterpillars off your plants and squish or dunk in a bucket of soapy water

  • spread a thin layer of wood ashes or straw around the base of the shrub (I personally haven't tried this method, but apparently it works. Let me know how it does for you!)

  • place a tarp under your shrubs and wait for the caterpillars to drop and dispose of them (note this does not prevent them from eating the leaves, but is a good supplement to the other methods).


Gooseberry fruitworm is a less common problem, but not unheard of here. They are very tiny worms that are found in the centre of the fruit. Check your fruit every so often, so you don't end up with extra protein every time you pop a berry in your mouth. For major infestations of either currant worm or fruitworm, Bt (Baccillus thuringensis) can be an effective control. Read the instructions on your package to ensure it is applied safely and effectively. Timing matters with bacterial treatments!


Mildew and leaf spot can be an issue, especially in crowded or overly shaded plants. The solution is to purchase resistant varieties from reputable garden centres and thin out overcrowded plants with judicious pruning. For bad outbreaks, copper sprays (for leaf spot) or sulfur sprays (for powdery mildew) may be effective. Be forewarned, that these sprays may affect the taste of the fruit so only use if absolutely necessary. Always clean up and discard fallen leaves if disease has been an issue.


Birds also like these berries. They will go for both the fully formed fruit and the buds. They can be excluded using bird netting. Happily, this is much easier task with these relatively small shrubs, as compared to many of our larger fruit bearing shrubs and trees.


Harvesting


Ribes berries ripen usually in mid July, making them exactly mid- season for me. They land right between the raspberries of early summer and the apples and pears of fall. This is a fairly calm time for me in the kitchen, allowing for some serious preserving to happen.


Currants are borne on strigs (longer, drooping stems). You can individually pick the berries or you can harvest the entire strig and remove the berries in the kitchen. A quick way to pluck the berries is to run the strigs through the tines of a fork. Pick red, white and pink currants as soon as they reach their intended colour and are clear looking.


Conversely, gooseberries and black currants are borne individually (or in 2s or 3s) along the entire stem of the plant. Don't forget to wear gloves when harvesting gooseberries to avoid the prickles. I usually wear a glove on one hand which I use to lift up a branch and then pull off the fruit with my other, bare, hand. They need to be continuously picked as the fruit ripens unevenly. They will fall to the ground shortly after they are fully ripe, so you need to keep on top of picking.


Gooseberries and currants are ready to pick when they are fully coloured and starting to soften, but are still fairly firm. Some people prefer to eat them a bit on the unripe side, as they prefer the tartness. Slightly less ripe berries are also preferred for preserves (they have higher levels of pectin). Others prefer them super ripe and quite soft, especially for fresh eating. You will have to taste test your berries throughout the season and see how you prefer them. Berries can colour up off the vine, so you can always pick them a bit earlier and let them ripen on the counter, however the flavour won't be quite as developed if you pick them early.



Storing

Berries can be stored in the refrigerator for several days to one month. The more ripe they are, the faster they will need to be eaten. The best way to store these guys long term is in the freezer. Very little preparation is needed. Simply remove the stems, and for gooseberries also cut off the blossom end (see photo above). Scissors work great for this. Place berries in a zip top freezer bag in measured out portions. Check your favourite recipe for a portion size that works well for you. You can also freeze berries thinly spread out on a baking sheet. Once they are individually frozen, dump them into a zip top bag. This ensures they don't freeze into one large clump, and allows you to take as much or as little as you need from the bag without defrosting it.


Propagation


If you want more bushes, all you need to do is allow the end of a branch to stay in contact with the ground. This process is called tip layering. In mid summer, choose a branch with at least 3 buds and use an anchor or large rock over the branch to keep the end in contact with the soil. After approximately 1 year, roots will form. Cut the new plant away from the base plant and transplant to its new location.


Ribes can also be propagated by cuttings. In late winter or early spring, choose a one year old branch (new growth from the previous summer) and cut off a 12" long tip. Ensure your cut is immediately below a bud. Plant this cutting in a protected spot with good drainage, leaving 3-4" of the branch above ground. Water very well and keep moist at least until you get new growth. The cuttings take about 50% of the time, so plant more than you need.


Varieties


There are over 100 named varieties of currants and gooseberries, but here are some that are available and recommended for our climate. All Ribes have small, cream coloured flowers, with the exception of Golden Currants.


Gooseberries

Most gooseberry varieties available in nurseries today are hybrids of the American gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum) and European gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa). Berries are around 3/4" in diameter and 5-6g each.


Pixwell

  • thornless

  • green fruit that ripens to pinkish red

  • medium sized fruit with average taste

  • very hardy and very productive

  • fruit is held away from the thorns making it easier to harvest

  • 4' tall and wide

Hinnonmaki Red

  • (see photo above) one of the most common varieties

  • red, very large fruit when ripe

  • very thorny

  • good for fresh eating, desserts or for preserves

  • resistant to leaf spot and mildew

  • European variety (Ribes uva-crispa)

Captivator

  • almost thornless

  • smaller size shrub (3' tall and wide)

  • tasty, very large, deep pink, pear-shaped fruit

  • good for fresh eating or desserts

  • resistant to leaf spot and mildew

  • European and American cross

Poorman

  • dark wine red colour when ripe

  • very tasty, medium sized, slightly pear-shaped fruit

  • resistant to leaf spot and mildew

  • probably the variety that has been around the longest

  • American variety (Ribes hirtellum)

Jahns Prairie

  • large, red fruit

  • sweet with a slight apricot flavour

  • 4' tall and wide

  • disease resistant

Invicta

  • large pale green berries

  • mid season fruit

  • vigorous plant with large thorns

  • very disease resistant

  • good for fresh eating, desserts or for preserves

  • European variety (Ribes uva-crispa)


Black Currants (Ribes nigrum or R. ussuriense)

All currants are much smaller than gooseberries, but black currants are the largest of the currants. They are about 3/8" across and around 1g each. They have very high natural sugar levels, making them great for wine production. They also have the highest vitamin C levels of all the Ribes. Black currants have a quite strong flavour that is resinous and tart. Not everyone appreciates it, so make sure you taste them first before committing to an entire shrub.


Ben Connan and Ben Hope

  • easy to pick, very large berries

  • compact, upright bushes (3' tall and wide)

  • ripens mid to late season

Ben Nevis

  • large, firm berries

  • very popular for black currant syrup

  • very large producer

  • mildew resistant (but becoming more susceptible as time goes on)

  • rust resistant

Ben Sarek

  • large, firm berries

  • mid- season fruit

  • smaller sized bush (3'x3')

  • resistant to mildew, rust and leaf spot

Consort

  • deep black fruit

  • good for preserves and cooking

  • very hardy (zone 2)

  • 4' tall and wide

  • rust resistant

Swedish Black

  • early ripening

  • medium large berries that are slightly milder than other black currants

  • fruit is great for drying

  • mildew resistant

  • compact shrub


Titania


  • matte black-brown berries that are very large and pungent

great for preserves, cooking or drying

  • branches may need some support due to heavy fruit production

  • stores well

  • rust and mildew resistant

  • 5-6' tall


Willoughby

  • mildew and rust resistant

  • large crops with mild flavour

  • very reliable fruit production






Red, White and Pink Currants (Ribes triste, R. rubrum, R. petraeum or R. sativum)

Berries are 0.2" across and 1/4g each. They are sweeter and more floral in flavour than black currants. Their brilliant colours make them a very ornamental addition to the garden when the fruits are ripe. Shrubs tend to be smaller than other Ribes (usually 3-4' tall and wide). Pink currants are hybrids of red and white currants. Once again, there is a fair amount of hybridization between the species.


Red Lake

  • very productive with long clusters of fruit

  • mild flavoured

  • berries hold well on the bush

  • mostly used for jellies

  • very hardy (zone 2)

  • ripens mid-season

  • prone to mildew

Perfection

  • larger berries with good flavour

  • ripens mid-season

  • shrub tends to spread

Jonkheer Van Tets

  • great flavour and large crops

  • large, dark red berries

  • early blooming (so may need to protect from late frosts)

  • mildew and aphid resistant

  • good for espalier and cordon training

Primus

  • creamy white berries

  • super sweet with very high amounts of vitamin C

  • compact shrub

White Grape

  • large amber coloured fruit

  • mild tasting

White Pearl

  • long clusters of pale yellow fruit

  • mild flavour

  • very translucent fruit (you can see the seeds inside)

Pink Champagne

  • stunning jewel-like colour

  • very good flavour

  • disease resistant

  • slightly less hardy than other currants, but still considered a zone 3

  • cross between white and red currants





Other Ribes

Jostaberry (Ribes nidigrolaria)

  • cross between a black currant and a gooseberry

  • has large black berries on a thornless shrub

  • larger sized shrubs (6.5' tall and 4')

  • disease resistant

  • tends to be a bit less hardy than other currants or gooseberries (often listed as zone 4)



Golden Currant (Ribes aureum or R. odoratum)

  • also known as Clove Currant or Albol Currant

  • golden is in reference to the bright yellow, fragrant flowers that smell of clove and vanilla, not the fruit (which can be black or red)

  • often sold as an ornamental

  • milder tasting fruit than black currants

  • shrub is slightly larger than other currants and gooseberries (4-6' tall and wide)

  • fruit size and sweetness in between a currant and a gooseberry

  • fruit good for preserves

  • tolerates hot, dry weather better than other Ribes

  • rust resistant

  • often used as root stock for grafting other currant varieties to

  • Crandall and Black Giant are two varieties that are available


In The Kitchen


Of course you can eat many varieties fresh off the shrub, but these berries are classics in jams, jellies, pies, tarts, syrups and sauces. Red currant jelly and black currant syrup is pretty much mandatory in British and French kitchens. Both gooseberries and currants have high levels of pectin, making them perfect for preserving. All fruits contain small seeds in them. Because currants are quite small, the seeds are much more significant. This is the reason currants are often made into jellies, instead of jams. Gooseberries, being much larger, are more often turned into jams and compotes. The berries are also fantastic additions to baking, either fresh or dried. In addition, their gem-like beauty makes them perfect as an elegant garnish. I have even heard of pickled unripe gooseberries (stay tuned for some recipe trials). And don't forget about wine!


Before you toss these jewels into anything, remember to remove any stems and pull off any remnants of the blossoms. Gooseberries, especially tend to hang on to their dried up blossoms.



Yummy gardening everyone!



photo by Pixaby

Recipes


  • Gooseberry Fool (recipe coming soon)

  • Everyberry Jam (recipe coming soon)

  • Gooseberry Custard (recipe coming soon)

  • Red Currant Jelly (recipe coming soon)

  • Blackcurrant Syrup (recipe coming soon)


Further Reading

  • Stewart, Getty "Prairie Fruit Cookbook" 2012, Pursuit Communications Winnipeg, Manitoba

  • Watts, Melanie J. "Growing Food in a Short Season" 2014, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., Madeira Park, BC, Canada

  • T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) Longstanding Manitoba company with a huge variety of seeds as well as trees, shrubs, perennials (including rhubarb) and gardening accessories.

  • TreeTime.ca (https://treetime.ca/?linkid=headerLogo) has a wide variety of small caliper trees. Many fruit, shelterbelt and naturalization varieties. Great bulk pricing.

  • T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) Longstanding Manitoba company with a huge variety of seeds as well as trees, shrubs, perennials and gardening accessories.

  • Whiffletree Farm (https://www.whiffletreefarmandnursery.ca/) sells edible fruit trees and shrubs (including root stock), support plants, tools, and other fruit growing supplies. Lots of information on grafting, root stock and pollination. Located in Ontario but has lots of zone 3 choices.

  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (https://www.rareseeds.com/) for specialty and hard to find heirloom seeds. Note this is an American company so check hardiness zones and days to maturity before selecting seeds.

  • don't forget your local garden center or greenhouse!


2,175 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All