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Blackcurrants: Uncommon fruits worthy of attention

Q. We have what we now realize is a blackcurrant bush. (I thought it was a gooseberry at first, as the leaves are similar and gooseberry grows wild in our woods.) Is there a way to propagate the currant via cuttings? What is the care and feeding of currants? Thanks so much,

    ---Penny in Frankfort, Michigan

I am hoping to grow blackcurrants. Is that possible in my location? Do you need more than one bush if you want them to bear fruit? And what time of year should they be planted? Thanks,

    ---Claire Lambertville, NJ

A. Currants are one of the plants that our good friend and small fruit advisor Lee Reich, Ph.D., must have had in mind when he sat down to work on his classic tome, "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden" (Timber Press; 2004), as currants and the closely related gooseberry almost seem to dominate the book.

Lee explains that all currants and gooseberries (gooseberry plants have thorns; currants do not) are members of the same botanical family (or, more correctly, the same 'genus'): Ribes. (Which is pronounced "Rye-bees".) Of this diverse family, two types can be called 'black currants': European blackcurrants and clove currants, an American Ribes whose fruits are also black in color.

There are also currants whose ripe fruits are red, pink or white, and so highly ornamental when ripe that Lee has trouble picking them, telling me, "they're as nice to look at as to eat—and they're very good to eat." This star quality earned them a very high "Luscious Landscape Index" rating in Lee's latest book, "Landscaping with Fruits" (Storey; 2009). (Those interested in learning more about the various colors will find a wealth of 'currant info' in Lee's fine fruit books.)

Anyway, all currants are sprawling (as opposed to tidy) shrubs, but clove currant also spreads by underground cane-like runners and so does best in places with lots of room. (Lee warns that new shoots can appear a couple of feet away.) All currants do well in shade and are not bothered by deer. They need little food or other care: Plant 'em and pick 'em.

The European blackcurrant, explains Lee, has a strong flavor that, 'like dark beer and artichokes', not everyone cares for. He calls the fruits "sweet, tart and kind of piney". Of course, Lee likes them—but Lee also likes persimmons, so draw your own conclusions. (The fruits are loaded with Vitamin C, so cultivating a taste for them will at least keep scurvy at bay.)

The European black is ridiculously cold hardy and can be grown in lower zones than most plants (and people) can survive—but, unlike the clove currant, it does not do well in regions with hot summers. Lee says that some enthusiasts (like Lee) eat the fruits fresh; and everyone enjoys them cooked into jams and jellies. Lee especially praises the strong fragrance of the European blackcurrant shrub, calling it an aromatic joy to brush up against.

Native Americans enjoyed the fruits of the clove currant, which Lee recommends over the European blackcurrant. The native fruits are the largest of all the currants, the plants are super-easy to grow in almost any clime—hot, dry, cold, or wet—and the berries are preceded by colorful, trumpet shaped yellow-tinged-with-red flowers whose aroma of clove and vanilla is so pungent, swears Lee, "it's made me lightheaded from 30 feet away".

You need multiple plants to get good fruits with clove currants. European blackcurrants and the other colors are self-pollinating (but of course, having multiple plants always helps to make harvests and fruits bigger, even with 'self-pollinating' plants).

Currants can be planted Spring or Fall, and can be cultivated via cuttings or layering (bend a branch to the ground, hold it down with a brick, water that spot until it roots, then dig up and replant the new section.) And, as mentioned, clove currants also send up their own new shoots (but these don't count as outside pollinators; they're just extensions of the main plant).

Q. I would like to grow currants. I read an article about the importance of finding varieties that are resistant to the white pine blister rust fungus, but the article did not say which ones are resistant. Could you recommend varieties that are ok to grow—especially in pots? Thank you.

    ---Elizabeth in Philadelphia

A. I don't like the idea of confining any long-lived fruiting plant in a pot, Liz (although Lee is more adventurous on the topic). We both agree that plastic, ceramic or terra cotta pots would crack when temps drop below freezing outdoors, so you'd have to overwinter such pots in an unheated basement. A metal or wooden container—or the plant removed from its pot—could stay outside buried in shredded leaves or dropped below the soil line. (And if you can drop it into the ground for the winter, why not just plant it there in the first place?)

The disease issue is easier. The white pine blister problem you mention—which was so terrifying to some 'experts' that the entire genus was banned until 1966—strongly affects only European blackcurrants. Lee says that red, white, pink and clove currants are not very susceptible.

And finally, be assured that, as the title of our friend and advisor Lee Reich's most renowned book on fruits more than suggests, currants are uncommon fruits worthy of a spot in any garden. This short primer can't hope to do their large and diverse genus justice, and so we strongly suggest that you read up on them, choose a color and a type that fits your needs and get growing!

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