Ribes spp.—Currants and Gooseberries
Over 150 shrubs of the Ribes genus are known worldwide but only a few are native to California and fewer yet are recommended for home gardens for their unapparelled floral display and tangy berries. Those with upright prickly stems are called gooseberries; with smooth stems, currants. Many berries are edible, though not all are well-loved, except by many birds who relish them. Bees and hummingbirds are attracted to floral nectar.
Many gardeners favor ribes for woodland gardens, but the early spring blooms qualify them, in native gardens especially, as choice selections for specimen plants in open borders or along fences. Their dangling blossoms never fail to delight as they burst forth in late winter. A serious caution, however, where white pines grow nearby is that ribes are an alternate host for white pine blister rust.
All ribes become drought tolerant once established but benefit from occasional waterings early in the dry season while foliage is present, especially when grown in full sun.
Golden currant—Ribes aureum var. gracillimum. Best grown in full sun to promote flowering, golden currant bears smaller leaves than others in the genus, but they complement the heavy crop of small yellow blossoms and red berries that follow on 3-6 ft., sometimes taller, shrubs. Thin branching structure can be refined with judicious pruning to remove low branches, prevent stems from rooting as they lie on the ground, and eliminate rangy growth.
Golden currant is a good candidate for growing against a plain backdrop that allows flowers, fruit, and red autumn foliage to stand out. In winter, prune out rangy branches to create an interesting outline with the deciduous stems. Birds and other wildlife feed on fruits.
Well-mulched soil holds in occasional irrigation in summer months, especially for plants grown in full sun, but excessively moist soil that breeds fungal disease must be avoided.
Chaparral currant—Ribes malvaceum. About the same 4-6 ft. in height but more drought tolerant with age than golden currant, this species will go dormant in summer if its soil is too dry for too long.
During dormancy, thin, leafless stems reveal reddish brown, exfoliating bark. Extra water in late spring will keep it evergreen longer. Fragrant, light pink, 2-6 in.-long flower clusters are made up of several individual tubular blossoms terminating with 5 flared petals with white markings. They often begin bloom in late fall and last into spring providing an important source of nectar during the cool season. They’re followed by small red to bluish black fruits attractive to birds. Sites in full sun provide the heaviest flowering.
Pink-flowering currant—Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum. Considered by many gardeners to be the most beautiful of the flowering ribes, pink-flowering currant is also the most widely planted. Vase-shaped or rounded shrubs from 5-12 ft. high are laden with cascading pink blossoms 2-8 in. long. In the wild, blossoms are typically pink to rose-red, but named cultivars, which most gardeners prefer, may be red, pale pink or white. Edible but rather insipid bluish black berries are relished by birds. Both ‘Claremont’ and ‘Spring Showers’ tend to flower heavily with the showiest pink blossoms up to 8 in. long, making them especially important nectar sources. ‘Spring Showers’ was selected from a native growing in coastal Sonoma County.
Deciduous in winter, plants burst into bloom in January or February and may continue into March or April. Pendulous floral clusters stand out against slightly fuzzy, wrinkled, lobed and maple-like leaves. Little maintenance is needed but plants respond to pruning in late summer or fall when up to one-half of stem length can be removed. Annual applications of compost mulch help hold in moisture. Plants become more drought resistant with age, sooner near the coast where they can be planted in full sun.
Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry--Ribes speciosum. Named for fuchsia-like tubular red blooms with long, protruding stamens, spectacular flowering of this gooseberry saves it from being shunned for an abundance of sharp spines and summer dormancy. One of the prickliest of plants, its appealing qualities are unmatched as distinctive red flowers hang like ornaments along nearly horizontal or arching branches, often beginning in late autumn with the onset of late fall rains. Copious thick and glossy maple-like leaves erupt atop branches and last until overtaken by dry-season drought. Supplemental light watering keeps it semi-evergreen; otherwise, masses of sharp spines are fully exposed on bare branches. Heavy irrigation in water-retaining heavy soils, however, is not tolerated and can be fatal.
This rugged shrub is not particular about soil, usually growing to a 4 by 4 ft. size though sometimes to 8 ft. or more whether planted in full sun or under the shade of trees. Because of its thorny stems, most gardeners prefer to plant it away from traffic areas but where the winter beauty is fully displayed. Flowers are an important nectar source, and birds and other wildlife feast on bristly, reddish orange berries in summer.