Currant plants (genus Ribes) are one of the lesser-known wild berry species. Not necessarily because they’re not tasty, but more because they had been banned in the states back in 1911 up until 1961.
The ban stemmed from the fact that many currant species carry the pine blister rust disease, which threatened America’s native pine population.
This ban generally stemmed disinterest in the species throughout the country, which left many people rarely being able to identify them in the wild.
Personally, I collected a few wild specimens but had a terrible time trying to identify them.
This guide will resolve this problem and set apart all the significant species of currant found in North America.
Here’s what you can expect to learn in this guide:
- Significant Currant Species
- Ribes Flowering Season
- Ribes Fruiting Season
- How to Propagate Currant Plants
Let’s get started:
Significant Currant & Gooseberry Species
Red Currant (Ribes rubrum)
Leaves: Red currant leaves grow in a palmate structure with 3 to 5 lobes. Leaf arrangement is alternate, margins are serrate and overall they look similar to a sugar maple leaf. They are green most of the season and turn into a deep red in the fall. Each leaf grows up to 10cm (4 inches) long and wide.
Flowers: They grow in long clusters about 4-10 cm (1 1/2 to 4 inches) each of five-petalled pinkish-purple to salmon-colored flowers. The “petals” are curled back, and there are 6 to 15 flowers per cluster.
Fruits: 6-9 mm diameter, bright red to orange-hued red, shiny and smooth-skinned. Tart, but sweet. Used for liqueurs, cordials, candies, jams, jellies, and syrups.
Habitat: Hardy up to zone 2. It likes to grow by water, in acidic, moist, and wet areas. Companion plants are sometimes blueberries, raspberries, fireweed, lady’s slippers, and labrador tea.
Black Currant (Ribes nigrum)
Leaves: Black currant leaves are three to five lobes, alternate, the leaves range from 4-9cm. The margins are course and irregular serrated.
The surface is wrinkled, and the bottom of the leaf is paler green than the upper side. A distinctive trait is the gold-colored spots scattered on the leaf surface.
Fruits: Each fruit is black, smooth-skinned and 6-9mm in diameter. Intense tart-sweet flavor. Used in jam, puddings, sorbets, and vodka.
Flowers: Clusters with up to 15 white to greenish flowers.
Habitat: Hardy up to zone 4, found growing in hedgerows, meadows, and streamsides.
Warning: Ribes Nigrum may host a dangerous disease called white pine blister rust. It’s banned in some states, be careful if you wish to cultivate this species. Although, commercially, white pine blister rust can be controlled chemically.
American Gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum)
Leaves: Each leaf is 2.5-6m long and wide. They grow in an alternate fashion and have 3-5 lobes like a maple leaf. The edges are serrated, coarse, and irregular. The leaf underside has more or less hair depending on the type of soil it grows in. Acidic is less, alkaline is more.
Fruits: American gooseberry fruits are 8-12mm in size, and their color range from green, to purple-black.
Flowers: 5 petalled, green and purplish red, to yellowish in singles or small clusters on short stems.
Habitat: Hardy up to zone 3. Usually grows by water, in damp areas like forest clearings, and open woods.
Coast Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum)
Leaves: Each leaf is 2-6cm wide, growing alternate with 3-5 lobes similar to a maple leaf. The leaves are serrated, coarse, and irregular.
Fruits: The fruits are blueish-black, smooth, and range from 6-10mm.
Flowers: Flowers appear in clusters of 2-4, they are tubular, and the sepals range from a purplish to greenish color.
Habitat: Hardy up to zone 7. Found in open woods, hillsides, and prairies.
Ribes Flowering Season
Ribes plants flower in early spring. A successful fruiting season is highly dependent on flowering. Flowers coming too early can get bitten by frosty nights and result in poor fruiting for the season.
When cultivating currant or gooseberry, careful temperature conditioning is important.
Ribes Fruiting Season
Ribes species produce fruits mid season, usually from July to August, sometimes late into the season to September.
Currants can self-pollinate, but planting two different currant varieties near each other may increase fruit size.
Pollinators such as honeybees can increase proportional fruit sets, mature fruits produced, and the number of seeds produced by the plants.
Currant fruits are produced 1-3 years after planting.
How to Propagate Currant Plants
Hardiness Zone: 2-8
Soil Type: Well-drained, chalk, clay, sand, or loam. Acidity is variable.
Water: Normal to high
Exposure: Full sun
Currant plants (ribes) is a deciduous, berry-producing shrubs hardy up to zone 2. You can propagate currant plants by seed, or by taking cuttings.
Ribes species such as currant and gooseberries have some interesting commercial value.
The majority of currant berries are commercially used in juice and as yogurt colorant.
They are also processed into jellies and syrups and are used as aromatic ingredients in alcohol.
They have been limited commercially in the past because of their ability to spread the white pine blister rust disease.
Today, cultivars have been developed which are resistant, and don’t host the disease.
Generally, black currants are the most susceptible species. Others such as American gooseberry and red currants are less susceptible.
The Best Way to Propagate Currant Plants (Ribes)
By Taking Cuttings
You can propagate currant plants by taking cuttings at two different times of the year.
It can be softwood cuttings, during the growing season or hardwood cuttings when the plant is still dormant or barely waking up.
Softwood cuttings are taken from fresh growth, from the end of May until late August.
They are more tender, require more humidity but can root much faster.
Here’s how to take currant softwood cuttings:
- First, identify this season’s new growth.
- Next, cut a branch just below where the stem turns from green to brown.
- In general, a good length for cuttings is 6-8 inches, but more importantly, make sure the width is thick enough, 1/8-1/4 inch each is good.
- When you cut, you want to do it at an angle and below a node, then scuff up the bottom inch of your cuttings.
- Remove all of the leaves from the cutting except for 2-3 at the top.
- Moisten your cuttings, dip in rooting hormone, then lightly flick off excess powder.
- Prepare your rooting medium by poking holes through it, then insert your cuttings, and tamp the soil.
- Keep watering the cuttings to maintain humidity, and cover with plastic if the humidity is too low.
- Roots will form within 4-6 weeks, from there you can uncover and let them grow more foliage before transplanting.
Recommended rooting medium: 2:1:1 parts sand, peat, perlite.
Less organic matter in the propagation mix is ideal to prevent rotting.
You can also propagate currant plants by taking hardwood cuttings. The process is almost identical to softwood cuttings, what’s different is the timing and the length of the cuttings.
With hardwood cuttings, you need to take them when the plant is dormant, for example after the first hard frosts of fall or early spring before the leaves emerge.
Similarly to softwood cuttings, you clip your cuttings off a plant, just under a node but make them longer, from 10-12 inches is good.
Same rooting medium and technique, except hardwood cuttings, can take longer to root, sometimes more than 8 weeks.
Pro tip: Keep good moisture and aeration as your top priorities and you’ll have good success at rooting currant plants without any rotting.
Sowing seeds is the most natural way to propagate currant plants. You can extract them from the fruits, or order them online from a reputable seller.
Note: Currant seeds need to go through a stratification process to germinate. That means a warm – cold – warm process. The cold period should be about 90 days. If you order seeds and they aren’t pre-stratified, just place them in a zip lock bag with dampened sand in a fridge.
How to Sow Currant Seeds
Sow seeds on sandy compost, cover with a fine layer of sand and moisten.
Keep the soil moist, and place it in a cool area. Seeds that were stratified should germinate sporadically within a couple of weeks.
When they’ve grown enough, transplant them in a good garden soil mix with peat, compost, black soil, and sand.
Let grow into a fair shrub before transplanting outdoors.
Currant Plant Application in Forestry
I think currant plants have the potential to be used as a forest crop.
Given it is not planted in a white pine plantation, it can become a good crop to harvest year after year while your tree plantation matures.
Currant berries fit among a list of NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products) that can be purposely planted on your rural property.
Rural land management always has room for improvement. You can help mother nature and plant native species on your property that can benefit nature, attract all sorts of animals, and can create crops for you to transform.
It’s another interesting plant to add to your arsenal when creating your design for your food forest or off-grid property.
Hopefully, it’s given you some ideas and success to propagate currant plants!