Currants are edible plants, native to the northern hemisphere.
Not to be mistaken with the tiny black raisins made from black Corinth grapes, currants are members of the Ribes family, along with gooseberries and jostaberries (a cross between currants and gooseberries).
Most Americans are unfamiliar with currants because they were banned in 1920. This ban was put in place because currants are co-hosts, along with white pine, to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). This fungal disease was devastating to white pines on the east coast. That ban was lifted, in 1966, as resistant cultivars were developed.
The small, pea-sized fruits can be red, pink, white, or black and are produced in clusters called ‘strigs’. Currants are tart, so they are not usually eaten fresh. They are more commonly used for jams, jellies, pies, syrups, wine and brandy. The flowers are also edible.
Currant plants are thornless, deciduous shrubs that make excellent additions to native gardens. They are drought tolerant and provide food and shelter to many indigenous birds. Native Americans frequently used currants as both food and medicine. In particular, they used currant roots to treat menstrual and menopausal problems. Scientists have found that currant roots and seeds contain high levels of gamma-Linolenic acid, a chemical known to be effective for those same issues.
According to Wikipedia, there are black currants, red currants, and white currants. According to the University of Massachusetts, “Species are Ribes rubrum (most red currants and some whites), R. petraeum (white), R. vulgare (pink, white, and red), and R. nigrum and R. ussurienses (black). Native currants… belong to the species R. odoratum."
My order of Golden Currants (Ribes aureum) just arrived. Clearly, there is some confusion. Here’s the bottom line, as well as I can figure:
How to grow currants
Traditionally, currants grow in cool climates with fertile, well-drained soil, where they are found in full sun or partial shade. In areas with hotter summers, like the Bay Area, currants prefer heavier soil and more shade. Mulch can be used to keep roots cool and moist in summer. Most currant bushes reach 3 to 5 feet in height, but they can go as tall as 9 feet, under ideal conditions. Currents can be grown in large containers. Currants are normally purchased as bare root stock or young saplings that were propagated from hardwood cuttings. These young currant bushes need a lot of water to get established, but are very drought tolerant later on. Currents also need a lot of potassium. Our Bay Area soil tends to have plenty of that, so no treatment is needed around here. Most currant plants are self-pollinating, but production is significantly higher per plant with multiple plants nearby.
Currants can be pruned as shrubs or trees, depending on your preferences and the plant’s location. Currants should be pruned once a year in winter using a method called renewal pruning. Renewal pruning ensures that there are fruit-producing 2- and 3-year old stems each year. Use the following pruning schedule on currants:
Pests & diseases of currants
Aphids, mites, currant borers, and the larva of some moths and butterflies are really the only pests that bother currants. Problems are more commonly caused by mineral imbalances in the soil or improper irrigation. Rust, powdery mildew, anthracnose, and leaf spot can sometimes appear on currants.
Since currant flowers tend to appear early in the season, sometimes as early as February, they provide pollen and nectar to our earliest pollinators. This helps set the stage for a more productive year overall. Each bush can produce up to 10 pounds of fruit, so it won’t hurt to leave some behind for the birds.
Add some native golden currants to your California garden in early spring or late fall for many years of fruit and flowers!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!