March 17 2021
Many (many!) years ago when I was a new gardener and a new mother, I planted a red currant bush in my first garden on our newly purchased farm. I’d never so much as tasted a currant, had very little knowledge of how to grow them, and even less of an idea of what to do with the berries when I got them. But like the new farm (or new kids), when you’re starting from scratch, you’ve got nowhere to go but up. So the kids grew, the crops grew and the garden grew. One mid summer (currants ripen in July) day a couple of years later I couldn’t find our three year old son anywhere-this is cause for panic with irrigation ditches full of water all around. After a frantic half hour search, I found him calmly sitting under the currant bush, snacking away. I sat down and joined him. Apparently eating currants is more important than answering your mother.
These were red currants, still my favorite, I think they’re sweeter than black currants. These currants are originally from Europe where they have been cultivated for hundreds of years. They were first offered for sale in the US by The Prince Nurseries on Long Island, NY in 1700. Even older, the word currant itself is from the Greek city of Corinth.
In the 1920’s, the federal government issued a plant quarantine against importation and cultivation of any Ribes plants because it is an alternate host for White Pine Blister Rust. Black currants are particularly susceptible. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) hired thousands of men to eradicate currants in national forests. With new research into rust resistant or immune cultivars, the federal quarantine was lifted in 1966. I still see catalogs that won’t ship currants or gooseberries to Montana and other states, though you can buy them at nurseries. Go figure.
Currants are amazing fruits, very high in Vitamin C, calcium and higher than any other fruit in potassium and phosphorus. There is also some evidence that they can reduce blood pressure. I would grow currants for bird food and ornamental value anyway. We do have a native Golden Currant that is beautiful-the ones in my back pasture have lovely scented yellow blossoms and grow over eight feet tall and wide.
Since those early days, I have learned some ways to use currants. I dehydrate them for storage and make a syrup for waffles or ice cream-jelly is good, too, but we don’t eat much of that. My favorite thing to do is make a cordial. Simply steep the berries about a week or two (fresh will add water which increases the chance of mold, so keep refrigerated), strain, and add sugar to taste. You can warm it slightly to dissolve the sugar. Refrigerate and serve with club soda and a squeeze of lime. A delightful garden cocktail.
I have since planted a red currant in every one of my gardens, kind of a reminder of those early days and the unspoken faith we had that, indeed, our kids, our gardens, and our fortunes would grow. All this, and so much more, in my backyard.
Ribes rubrum, red currant ‘Red Lake
Ribes nigrum, black currant ‘Consort’
Ribes aureum, native Golden Currant.