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Currants

Currants

Currants
Currants
Currants

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Currants

By Robert Laurence

Currants are a rare, shade-tolerant fruit that form the basis for many mouth-watering dishes few Americans are familiar with. These smaller relatives of gooseberries, which are cultivated in much the same way and add a brilliant tone of red to the garden, weren’t always as unknown in America as they are today. English settlers brought the tart red currant to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1693 and housewives were soon using it to make jams, jellies that were served with venison, pies, pastries, and boiled puddings. Wrote poet Richard Hughes in the early 1600s:

Puddings should be
Full of currants, for me:
Boiled in a pail,
Tied in the tail
Of an old bleach shirt:
So hot that they hurt.

Europeans were enjoying currents long before Americans, of course, but the fruit was a wild one until the 1500s, when it began to be cultivated for the first time in the Netherlands, Denmark, and around the Baltic Sea. The currant got its name in a rather roundabout way, having been named, in fact, after a variety of raisin. It seems that in the fourteenth century Corinth, Greece, was the chief port for exporting seedless raisins dried from a small variety of grape grown in eastern Mediterranean lands. These raisins were originally called raisins of Corauntz—Corauntz being the Anglo-French pronunciation for Corinth—and finally Corauntz, was corrupted to currants. The black, red, and white berries of the Ribes family that are known today as currants were given the same name as the raisins because the plant clusters of the black variety of Ribes look something like the small grapes that were made into raisins of Corauntz.

Strangely enough, the currant’s family name, Ribes, also stems from a confusion of identities. Ribes derives form the Arabic ribas, a rhubarb grown by the Arabs in Lebanon as a medicinal essence. When in the early eighth century, the Arabs conquered Spain and found themselves without their rusty ribas, they looked for something to replace rhubarb and selected currants and gooseberries, which they also called ribas.

Black currants (Ribes nigrum) have never been as esteemed by American gourmets as red and white currants; in fact, centuries ago they were thought to breed worms in the human stomach. But they are high in vitamin C and have had many therapeutic properties attributed to them over the years, having been recommended for arthritis, gout, and dropsy, among other complaints. The black fruit has sweet, reddish flesh; a famous concoction made from it is the French cassis de Dijon, an internationally famous liqueur.

Red and white currants are also high in vitamin C and have been considered refreshing medicines as well as a cure for dysentery. Tart, but sometimes eaten out of hand, the berries are mostly used in making jelly, preserves, syrup, and currant wine. The English used to make a dish called “laid pudding” in pre-Reformation days that consisted of layers of raisins and red currants alternating with delicious, custard-soaked teacakes. Yet the most famous dish made from red and white currants has to be the seedless currant jelly once laboriously made professional “seeders” employing a goose feather to delicately pick out the currant seeds one by one without damaging the berries. The jelly used to be a gourmet delicacy made only in Bar-le-Duc, France, on the banks of the Meuse, and ever since 1559, when Mary Stuart, later Mary Queen of Scots, was given a jar of the rare jelly, it was presented to every visiting chief of state. But just five years ago its last manufacturer went out of business as a result of prohibitive labor costs, and the gastronomical rarity is no more.

Though currants, like gooseberries, aren’t exactly the rage in America, they are being planted more frequently presently than at any time since colonial days. Very easy to grow, they take up little room, make incomparable jellies, among other good dishes, and are well worth a try in every home garden. Remember, however, that currants—especially the black currant—can harbor the fungus that causes white pine blister and cannot be planted in certain areas (see Gooseberries, warning, in the Index).



THE BEST CURRANTS TO GROW

Currants come in black, red, and white (ranging from yellow to white) colors. No blacks are recommended here because black currants are carried by few, if any, American nurseries (McFadden Seed Co., in Canada, does offer a nameless black variety). Black varieties that might be ordered from nurseries abroad include Black Naples, Lee’s Prolific, Sweet-Fruited, Ogden’s Black Grape, Baldwin, Boskoop, Seabrook, Laxton, and Daniels September. Canadian blacks include Climax, Kerry Elipse, Clipper, and Saunders. Black currants are used mostly for cooking or preserves and for their medicinal properties.

Red Currant

RED LAKE. Probably the most popular red variety, at least the one offered by most nurseries. It is a very hardy, vigorous type that bears the first year after planting and yields large crops. Its clusters are long, the berries uniformly large, and the plants are compact and less vigorous than most. Like all reds, Red Lake is generally made into preserves.

WELDER. A spreading, productive plant that bears long clusters of large berries that are pleasantly subacid; bears even more than Red Lake on less fertile soils and the fruit hangs a long time after ripening without going bad.

IMPROVED PERFECTION. A productive improvement of an old variety that has larger berries than either of the above.

Other old favorites reds are London Market, Fay, Diploma, Cherry, Red Cross, Fay’s Prolific, Victoria, and Cascade. Old European reds include Rivers Lake, Houghton Seedling, Knights Large red, Prince Albert, La Fertile, Laxton’s Perfection, La Hative, Mammoth, Baby Castle, Warner’s Grape, Red Champagne, and Red Dutch.

White Currants

WHITE GRAPE. Traditionally considered the best American white currant. Like most white currants it is mostly used for desserts, being less acid than reds or blacks.

WHITE IMPERIAL. A recent challenger of White Grape recommended by the New York State Testing Cooperative.

HOLLAND WHITE. The long-time favorite European white currant (sometimes called White Dutch).

GATHERING CURRANTS.

Currants have been well-known throughout America, as familiar names in American history like the buffalo currant, the skunk currant, and the squaw currant clearly show. There are well over 140 species of currant, but the following are the three species most commonly found growing wild in America. All bloom early in the spring and fruit in midsummer.

RIBES AUREUM. The showy garden currant, which has yellow flowers and purplish-brown fruit, growing 4 to 6 feet. Western North America.

RIBES ODORATUM. The buffalo currant, a 4-to-6-foot-high ornamental with showy, yellow flowers in drooping clusters and black fruit. Central United States.

RIBES SANGUINEUM. The flowering currant, ornamental bush 8 to 10 feet high, which has red flowers and bluish black fruit. Northwestern North America.

WHEN, WHERE, AND HOW TO PLANT.

Currants do best in a moist, cool climate, but they will yield a crop of some sort almost anywhere in America except the very hottest and driest regions. The fruit can be grown successfully in any good garden soil that grows flowers and vegetables, but the ideal soil for currant growing is a cool, moist, well-drained clay or loam, 2 feet or more in depth and on the heavy side to help it retain moisture. Currants that are planted in light soil and aren’t kept watered constantly will produce fruit that shrivels or ripens prematurely and is inferior in flavor. The bushes should never be planted in a southern exposure. Though they are not particular about it, a pH of from 5.5 ot 7.0 is best for them.

Plant currants in the late fall or early spring before growth starts, enriching the soil with manure or compost prior to planting. Use one or two year olds to obtain berries within two years and set them about 5 feet apart each way (give black currants 6 feet each way), cutting back the plants to about 8 inches form the ground after planting. Bearing-age transplants will yield berries sooner, but are more expensive and less likely to survive.

One or two currant plants for each member of the family should suffice for all but great jelly makers. Each bush will yield 4 to 6 quarts annually and live for up to 30 years or more.


SPACE SAVERS

Currant bushes only grow 2 to 4 feet tall and spread out about the same distance. Everything written about gooseberry space savers applies to currants as well (see Index). Currants are just as shade resistant as gooseberries, too, and can be planted in shady areas on your property where no other fruit will grow. A good spot to grow them is between rows or fruit trees or rows of grapes. They can also be planted on the north side of buildings or fences.

To train currants to cover a wall, place young plants three feet apart. Select the three strongest shoots on each plant and train one shoot upright in the center and the other two equal distance on either side at one foot apart. Cut them back if they are at all weak, allowing them to reach the desired height, and occasionally shorten all the laterals.


CARE OF CURRANTS

Fertilizing, Watering, and Weeding

Knowing that currants are relatively heavy feeders, some gardeners tend to overfertilize them, and as a result they produce a lot of green growth but few, if any , berries. Currants need not be fertilized the first year if planted properly. Every year thereafter they should be fed in the fall or early spring with a forkful or two of well composted manure worked very shallowly into the soil around the base of each plant so as not to disturb the roots. If a composted manure mulch is kept around the base of each plant and renewed from year to year, no further fertilization is needed. Currants seem to thrive on organic fertilizers like manure mulch is kept around the base of each plant and renewed from year to year, no further fertilization is needed. Currants seem to thrive on organic fertilizers worth trying are composted leaves and cover crops of barley and oats turned under in the fall. If non-organic fertilizers are used, try either a large handful of a well balanced, commercial fertilizer scattered beneath each plant in the spring or fall; or 4 ounces of ammonium nitrate per plant; or 9 ounces of nitrate of soda per plant. On light soils, which currants don’t like, 3 to 4 ounces of sulfate of potash might benefit each plant if applied every two years or so.

Make sure that the soil does not dry out around currant bushes; that is, water when necessary. Selecting the proper moist soil at planting time and keeping the bushes under a 2-inch mulch of manure, hay, straw, corncobs, or leaves should eliminate any watering problems and hold down weeds as well. If you don’t mulch, be sure to cultivate the bushes frequently enough to eliminate weeds, but don’t cultivate deeply and harm the currant’s shallow root system.


PRUNING

Like gooseberries, currants develop from fruit buds at the base of one-year-old wood and from spurs on older canes. Currants, however, yield a cluster of berries (not one or two) from each bud. On planting, currant bushes are best cut back about 8 inches from the ground. From then on, remove any canes that droop to the ground when laden with fruit (these help spread mosaic disease), any can that doesn’t grow at least 6 inches a year, diseased or broken canes, weak one-year shoots, and all canes over four years old (which are usually weak and unproductive). Autumn is the most practical time to prune currants, but the job can be done whenever the bushes are dormant-in winter and early spring as well as in late fall. Be sure that the bushes don’t grow too dense. Ideally, a well-pruned bush would have about five one-year-old shoots, four two-year-old canes, and three three-year old canes.


Insect Pests and Diseases

Currants share the same troubles as gooseberries, and these pests and diseases should be dealt with in the same way (see Index). Compared to many fruits, however, both currants and gooseberries are relatively trouble free.


Propagating Currants

All types of currants can be propagated in the same ways as gooseberries (see Index). Like gooseberries, they do not come true from seed and are only grown in that manner in order to obtain new varieties. When planting them from seed, use the identical method for gooseberries from seed.

Currants are more difficult to layer than gooseberries, although they can be increases by layering if the up right shoots can be bent down and pegged to the ground. The bushes are usually propagated by hardwood cuttings. Early in the spring, before growth starts, take 8 to 12 inch long cuttings from one year old canes on a productive bush (or make the cuttings in late autumn and bury them over the winter in moist sand or sawdust in a cool place). Insert each cutting about three-quarters of its length into the ground. The cuttings can be grown 6 inches apart in a nursery bed and transplanted to their permanent place in the garden after 1 to 2 years, or they can be planted in their permanent spot to begin with. Since 50 percent of currant cuttings ordinarily survive if made properly at the right time, watered sufficiently, and covered with a glass jar the entire first year, two or three cuttings placed in a permanent site should suffice to obtain one that roots and becomes a currant bush.


HARVESTING

Fortunately, currant bushes are thornless and present none of the problems gooseberries do to the picker. One-year-old currant bushes should bear fruit tow years after planting and be at the height of their productive powers by the time they reach five years old. They yield up to 6 quarts a bush and go on bearing for as long as thirty years. Currants for eating out of hand or dessert should be dead ripe and picked just before eating, but fruits that are to be used for jam and jelly making are best picked firm and not fully ripe. Make sure that ll berries are dry, and do not pick them one by one. Twist the clusters off the branch first and then strip the berries from the clusters.


CURRANT FAVORITES

Currants have a high pectin content and are excellent for making jams, acrually supplying all the pectin that is needed to make raspberry currant jelly. But they are used for other tempting dishes as well, some of the best ones following.


GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE'S CURRANT WINE

"Put three pounds of brown sugar to every squeezed gallon of currants. Add a gallon of water, or two, if juice is scarce. It is better to put it in an old wine cask and let it stand a year before you draw it off." (Copied from a recipe in Mrs. Lee's handwriting).


CURRANT PIE

Mix 1 1/2 cups sugar and 2 tablespoons flour and sprinkle over 1 quart of half ripe currants. Linea pie plate with pastry. Fill with the currants and adjust teh edges of the top crust, carefully, as currant pie is very juicy. Bake at 450 degrees 10 minutes; then reduce heat to moderate (350 degrees) and bake 30 minutes more or until crust is done.


CURRANT RASPERRY PRESERVES

Three pound each of raspberries, currants, and sugar. Wash the berries. Boil the currants for 1/2 hour. Add the juice and sugar in a saucepan for 1/4 hour. Add the raspberries, letting the mixture boil up and remain boiling for ten seconds. Remove mixture from heat and pour into jars.


CURRANT SHRUB

For every pint of currant juice, add 1 pound sugar. Boil the juice and sugar together. Stir constantly while it cools, and when cold, bottle it. A refreshing warm weather drink when mixed with a glass
of ice water.


CURRANT CATSUP

Boil together for 1 1/2 hours and then bottle all the following ingredients: 5 pounds currants, 3 pounds sugar, 1/2 pint vinegar, 1 teaspoon cloves, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, dash red pepper.

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