December 19, 2014

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Currants and Gooseberries in the Home Garden

Doug S. Foulk
Emily E. Hoover, Professor
Emily S. Tepe, Research Associate

Department of Horticultural Science

Copyright  ©2008 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved


Currants and gooseberries are closely related berry-producing shrubs well suited to home gardens throughout most of the Upper Midwest. Hardy and productive, they provide fruit for fresh eating, jams, desserts and beverages.

Red and white currants are the same species, Ribes sativum. The European black currant is Ribes nigrum. Gooseberries of American origin are Ribes hirtellum or hybrids derived from this species, while the European species is Ribes uva-crispa. Gooseberries and currants, although closely related, can easily be distinguished by examining the canes and fruit; gooseberry canes normally produce a spine at each leaf node and bear roughly grape-sized berries singly or in groups of 2 or 3, while currant canes lack spines or prickles and bear 8 to 30 smaller fruit in clusters (figure 1). A mature gooseberry or currant shrub can produce up to four quarts of fruit annually.

Figure 1. Cane and fruit of (A) Gooseberry and (B) Currant

European-type gooseberries, although recognized as larger and better flavored than American types, have not been widely grown in the Upper Midwest due to severe mildew susceptibility, but some European hybrids with mildew resistance have recently become available.

Black currants have a strong and unusual flavor, and are widely grown in northern Europe because of their high vitamin C content. They have not been popular in the United States, primarily due to their extreme susceptibility to white pine blister rust. Cronartium ribicola, a serious disease of white pine. Blister rust is little more than a nuisance to the grower of currants and gooseberries. However, it can kill a tree.Although white pine blister rust also can be a problem with commercially available cultivars of red or white currants and gooseberries, rust resistance in such cultivars has generally been greater than with most black currants or wild stands of native Ribes species. But new cultivars of black currant include some with good rust resistance, so home gardeners may now try acquiring a taste for this fruit. 

In recent years, emphasis in forestry has turned to cultural practices to protect stands of white pine from this disease, rather than prohibitions on planting of Ribes species. The federal restrictions on planting were lifted in 1966. Some states still have retrictions on the planting of Ribes species on the books, but do not enforce these laws. Those that do enforce, do so at the nursery level. Home gardeners and commercial fruit growers in much of the country (including Minnesota) may plant any Ribes they choose. At the same time, new cultivars with improved blister rust resistance have been introduced. Nevertheless, before planting any gooseberry or currant near white pines, you should contact your county extension office or a Department of Natural Resources Regional Forest Health Specialist for up-to-date recommendations.

Most commercially available currant and gooseberry cultivars should have adequate winter hardiness for our region. However, very few cultivars have been fully evaluated in outdoor trials by researchers in Minnesota. New cultivars are introduced from European and North American breeding programs every year, so currants and gooseberries should be planted with a sense of adventure. You may be the first person in your county or even in the state to plant the cultivars you choose. Some will work out better than others.

Red Currant Cultivars

Jonkheer Van Tets
Produces heavy, early yields of fruit with very good flavor. Mildew resistant. Very early to bloom, so flowers may be lost to late frosts.

Minnesota No. 71
Vigorous and upright, producing medium clusters of large, good quality berries. Good resistance to powdery mildew.

Perfection
Early-ripening berries are red, juicy, medium-sized and borne in loose clusters on upright canes that break easily; support is recommended. Some mildew resistance.

Red Lake
Widely planted. Vigorous and upright plants produce long clusters of large, bright red berries. Some susceptibilty to powdery mildew; some resistance to blister rust; flowers susceptible to spring frost injury.

Red Start
High yields of somewhat tart, flavorful fruit. Late flowers are usually safe from late frosts; fairly late ripening.

Rovada
Heavy crops of very large, aromatic berries, borne in long clusters. Reliable cropping, as it is late to flower, thus avoiding frosts. Some mildew resistance.

Viking
Especially resistant to blister rust; may be useful where this disease is a problem, but fruit quality is not particularly good. May be difficult to find plants of this cultivar.

Wilder
Heavy yields over a long harvest period of tender, juicy fruit with good flavor. Hardy and vigorous shrub is mildew resistant.

Pink and White Currant Cultivars

These are albino selections of red currant, generally less acidic and better suited to fresh eating.

Blanka
Vigorous canes dependably produce heavy crops of large berries with a mild flavor. Flowers are somewhat late, avoiding late frosts. Foliage is ornamental, red and green, and resistant to powdery mildew.

Pink Champagne
Beautiful berries have very good flavor for fresh eating, but yields are low. Vigorous plants have good disease resistance.

Primus
Heavy yields of translucent fruit with a sweet, intense flavor. Attractive plants, suitable for edible landscaping, bear red new shoots giving way to red-tinged foliage. Blooms early, so flowers may be injured by late frosts. Disease susceptibility is unknown.

White Imperial
Pinkish white berries are medium sized, sweet, juicy, and rich-flavored. Compact habit. Resists powdery mildew and blister rust.

Black Currant Cultivars

Ben Lomond
Large berries have a very strong flavor. Compact, heavy-cropping shrub is resistant to powdery mildew but somewhat susceptible to blister rust.

Ben Sarek
Heavy yields of large berries on compact plants. Highly resistant to white pine blister rust. Tolerates some frost during bloom.

Consort
Fruit is only of fair quality, but plants are very resistant to white pine blister rust. Some susceptibilty to powdery mildew.

Crandall
A cultivar of the clove currant, Ribes odoratum, this variety has a different and milder flavor than other black currants. Vigorous, very resistant or perhaps immune to blister rust, and very ornamental, with clove-scented flowers in spring and brilliant fall foliage. Canes may be weak, breaking or drooping to the ground under full crops; may need trellising.

Crusader
Immune to blister rust. Large fruits of fair quality on a vigorous shrub. Not self-fertile; must be planted with another black currant variety to produce fruit.

Titania
A very promising cultivar. High yields of large high-quality berries are borne earlier—within three years after planting—than other cultivars. Very vigorous, tall plants are immune to blister rust and have good resistance to powdery mildew. Self-fertile: no other variety need be planted to get good crops from Titania.

Gooseberry Cultivars

Captivator
Large, sweet, reddish fruit on tall, hardy, mildew-resistant plants bearing few spines.

Colossal
Fruit are very large and deep red when fully mature. Vigorous, hardy, and tolerant of disease.

Hinnomaki Yellow
Small yellowish berries have excellent aromatic flavor. The plant is hardy and has some mildew resistance, but is very slow-growing.

Hinnomaki Red
Sweet, flavorful berries have tart skin. Productive, moderately vigorous plants have resistance to powdery mildew. May fruit the year of planting.

Invicta
Very high yields of large green berries on vigorous, very spiny plants. Fruit has a mild flavor. Good resistance to powdery mildew, moderate resistance to blister rust.

Pixwell
Medium-sized, pinkish berries have mild flavor and are borne in small clusters. Productive, mildew-resistant plants are vigorous and hardy, and have few thorns, making harvest easy.

Poorman
An excellent choice for the home gardener. Large fruit has good flavor and ripens over a long harvest season. Vigorous, powdery mildew resistant plants have only a few small thorns.

Welcome
Reddish fruit is somewhat tart. Hardy plants are vigorous once established, upright and nearly spine-free. Fair mildew resistance.

Black Currant-Gooseberry

Jostaberry
A black currant-gooseberry cross. Large, vigorous, thornless canes bear clusters of sweet berries with a hint of the characteristic black currant flavor. Hardy, heavy yielding, resistant to blister rust and mildew. 

Site Requirements

Currants and gooseberries are highly tolerant of less-than-perfect sites. Although full sun will result in the healthiest, most productive planting, the shrubs can perform quite well on as little as half-day sun. A soil pH of 5.5 to 7 (moderately acidic to neutral) is optimal, but growth is fine in alkaline soils as well. Because named cultivars have root systems that are fibrous and shallow, they do not tolerate dry sites without supplemental water. Keep in mind that trees not only cast shade, but compete for water and nutrients as well; a planting location beyond the canopy of shade trees is preferable.

Because currants and gooseberries bloom very early in spring, their flowers are susceptible to late-season freezes; temperatures below approximately 28° F can cause damage that will significantly decrease yield. Therefore, a site that warms up more slowly in spring is preferable to a quick-warming location that encourages the plant to get off to too early a start. North-facing slopes and sites that experience winter shade would both work well.

If possible, prepare your planting site the fall before you actually plant. Because currants and gooseberries do not perform well under dry or waterlogged conditions, most soils will benefit from the addition of organic material such as shredded peat or compost before planting. Rid the proposed planting site of all perennial weeds as they are much more difficult to control after planting. Test your soil for pH and nutrient needs; professional soil testing may be done through your county extension office.

Planting

Plants ordered from mail-order sources are usually sent bare-root, while those purchased from a local nursery may either be bare-root or potted. Because you want your new shrubs to become established before the onset of hot weather, set out either bare-root or potted plants in spring as soon as the soil can be worked; do not be afraid to plant early in the season, as even a plant that is beginning to leaf out can tolerate temperatures as cold as 19° F. When handling bare-root plants, make certain to keep the plants cool and moist until they go into the ground; the delicate root systems must not be allowed to dry or become waterlogged. Just before planting, soak the roots of bare-root plants in a bucket of clean water for three to four hours.

Currants and gooseberries should be planted at least an inch deeper than they were in the nursery, in holes deeper and wider than their root systems. If lower canes are covered with soil to a depth of two to three buds, this will encourage a larger root system and the development of numerous renewal canes, a strategy that will maximize the useful lifespan of the plant. Plants may be spaced as close as three feet apart for a hedge-type system in rows at least six feet apart. Black currants are more vigorous and should be spaced four to five feet apart in rows at least eight feet apart. Generally, currants and gooseberries are self-fertile, but research suggests that planting more than one cultivar results in better yields.

After planting, prune all canes back to four to six above-ground buds; the resulting low bud count encourages the development of vigorous new canes. At planting time you should also provide two to four inches of an organic mulch such as wood chips, pine needles, or compost. Mulching cools the soil, conserves water, and suppresses weeds, actions that are preferable in a partially shaded site and essential in a sunny spot. Beginning the year after planting, renew mulch annually. If you use a low-nitrogen mulch such as wood chips or sawdust, you may need to apply extra nitrogen at fertilization. Signs of nitrogen deficiency include yellowing leaves (older leaves yellow first) and poor growth.

Care and Pruning

Fertilize currants and gooseberries in early spring, before growth begins. Depending on the vigor of last year’s growth, apply ¼ to ½ pound of a balanced fertilizer (the ratio of nitrogen: phosphorus: potassium is indicated by the numbers on the bag; look for three numbers that are the same or close to it, such as 10–10–10) per bush. Apply fertilizer in a band around each bush, working it lightly into the soil from near the canes to a foot or so beyond the branch tips. A composted material rich in nitrogen, such as manure, also makes an excellent fertilizer and may be substituted for a balanced synthetic fertilizer. Because composted materials release their nutrients more slowly than synthetic fertilizers, apply such materials in late fall.

You should prune established currant and gooseberry shrubs to encourage vigor and fruit production, improve sun penetration into the bush, and maintain good air circulation to minimize disease. During the first three years of growth, allow four or five canes to develop per year, removing only weak or damaged wood. Beginning in the fourth year, prune out the oldest wood annually in early spring before growth begins. In addition, remove any weak new growth. A mature bush should have 9 to 12 canes once pruning is completed. Fruit is produced on one, two, and three year-old wood.

Plants that are particularly vigorous, or that develop a spreading or sprawling habit, will benefit from a simple support system such as that used for raspberries, or from a system of permanent “cordons”, or trunks, such as that used for grapes.

Harvesting

There is no simpler way to tell when currants and gooseberries are ripe than to monitor the color and flavor of the fruits as they develop. When using the fruit for jam, you should harvest it before it is fully ripe so that natural fruit pectin levels will be higher. Cool picked fruit quickly, placing it in covered containers or closed bags to maintain humidity levels and prevent drying when storing fruit in a frost-free refrigerator. Promptly cooled berries will keep in the refrigerator for up to several weeks.

Diseases and Insects

Currants and gooseberries do not require extensive spraying to control pests in the Upper Midwest; careful site selection and good cultural practices such as mulching, pruning, and sanitation will minimize pest problems. Powdery mildew can be a serious foliar disease in some years and some locations; it’s a good idea to choose cultivars with mildew resistance. For control of powder mildew or another specific insect or disease pest, contact your county extension office.

Currant and Gooseberry Research

Although Minnesota is not a center of current research on Ribes production, Cornell University in New York and the University of Idaho have programs that include cultivar evaluation, cultural practices for home and commercial growers, and pest control. Visit these websites for more in-depth information: 

http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/mfruit/gooseberries.html
http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/fruit/homefruit/8ribes.pdf
http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/berry/production/pdfs/ribescultreview2012.pdf
http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/bul/bul0855.pdf