Gooseberries and Currants - May 4, 2005
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County
Gooseberries and currants are shrubby plants that bear edible fruit and belong to the genus Ribes. Eleven species are native to Arizona. In general, gooseberry plants are spiny while currant plants tend not to be armed with spines. In the wild, these species are found in forests, woodlands, canyons, and riparian areas at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 11,500 feet. The fruits and leaves are used for food and medicinal purposes by Native Americans and plants are browsed by wildlife and domestic livestock. Birds and wildlife also eat the berries. The flowers contain nectar which makes them attractive to both hummingbirds and butterflies.
Gooseberries and currants are deciduous with small, lobed leaves that usually turn red in the fall. Through the ages, gooseberries and currants have been selected and bred to produce larger, tastier fruits. There are several named varieties which are popular among gardeners. They are especially popular in the British Isles.
Golden currant (Ribes aureum) is the most common species available in nurseries. It has fragrant tubular yellow flowers and is a very attractive landscape plant that grows up to 8 feet tall. Ripe fruits are black or red. This is the best adapted species for lower elevations areas like Sedona and cooler areas on the Verde Valley. Once established, it is somewhat drought tolerant.
Wax currant (Ribes cereum) is the most common species found in Arizona. It has white to pink tubular flowers. The fruits are red to dark red. The leaves are not as smooth as those of golden currant and darker green. This species is usually found in pine forests and not widely available in local nurseries.
Gooseberries and currants have a dubious past because they are the alternate host species of white pine blister rust: a fungal disease that affects five-needle pines such as western white pine and sugar pine. Many rust diseases rely one two plant species to complete their life cycle (another example is cedar apple rust). White pine blister rust was accidentally introduced to North America in about 1910. Since its introduction, it has spread from Vancouver Island across much of the west. Since white pines are highly desirable commercial species, efforts to control it have ranged from hand-controlling Ribes on using CCC crews to breeding rust resistant varieties of desirable pine species.
White pine blister rust has also spread across the country to the east coast. Maine, the Pine Tree State, is named such because of its stands of eastern white pine. Maine prohibits planting and cultivation of gooseberries and currants in the southern portion of the state and prohibits importation and planting of European black currants anywhere in the state. New York also has some restrictions.
White pine blister rust is still on the move in the southwest where it affects southwestern white pine (Pinus strobiformis). An isolated outbreak has been documented in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico and appears to be spreading. In Arizona, southwestern white pine is found in the mountains between 6,500 and 10,000 foot elevations and its range overlaps with several species of Ribes. To date, I am aware of no restrictions on the planting of gooseberries or currants in Arizona.
Gooseberry and currant species may be available by mail order, but I hesitate to recommend them for two reasons. First, I am unsure how they would perform here. They may be descendents of European varieties or domesticated cultivars which may be better adapted to acid soils and more humid climates. Second, I would not want anyone to unknowingly contribute to the introduction of white pine blister rust in Arizona. Reputable nurseries have high standards and do not knowingly sell diseased stock. However, there are many discount nurseries across the country that may or may not have the ability recognize and screen out rust infected plants.
One final note, I have rescheduled my office hours in the Cottonwood Cooperative Extension office from May 16 to May 26 between 9 AM and 3 PM. I apologize for any inconvenience and hope to see you there!
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on gardening and pest management. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 ext. 14 or E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to include your address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or submit column ideas at the Backyard Gardener web site: http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.
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Last Updated: April 28, 2005
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