Gooseberries and Currants - August 13, 2014
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of 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 ethnobotanists and wild crafters) 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 cultivated varieties which are popular among gardeners.

We have two common native currant species in Yavapai County. Golden currant (Ribes aureum) is the most common native 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) 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 as widely available in local nurseries. Both produce small edible berries.

As mentioned preciously, birds are fond of currents. If currents occur near your property and you have favorable habitat for foraging birds, it probably won’t be long before a few currant plants become established under perching spots or near fences. Birds “plant” many seeds on my property. In addition to currants, I often find seedlings of Texas mulberry and Oregon grape under favorite perching locations. These can be transplanted to another location or left to grow if they don’t interfere with other landscape features.

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 on two host 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. Efforts to control it have ranged from hand-controlling Ribes to breeding rust resistant varieties of desirable pine species. White pine blister rust has 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, New York and a few other eastern states have restrictions on the sales and planting of gooseberry and currant plants.

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. There are no restrictions on the planting of gooseberries or currants in Arizona.

Cultivated varieties of gooseberry and currant plants are available by mail order. I am unsure how they would perform here, but they might perform fairly well – especially where soils are not excessively alkaline. I would also recommend planting white pine blister rust resistant cultivars and would love to hear from anyone that has experience growing cultivated currants or gooseberries in Yavapai County. Additional information is included with the on-line version of this column (see URL below).

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Additional Resources

Gooseberries and Currants
Cornell University Department of Horticulture

White Pine Blister Rust
USDA Forest Service

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: August 7, 2014
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