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 unparalleled floral display and tangy berries. Only ornamental species are discussed here. A serious caution, however, where white pines grow nearby is that all plants in the genus are an alternate host for white pine blister rust.
Similarities and Differences
Ribes with upright, prickly stems are called gooseberries; those with smooth stems are currants.
- Many berries on ornamental shrubs are edible, though not all are well-loved, except by many birds who relish them.
- Ribes dangling blossoms never fail to delight as they burst forth in late winter.
- 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.
- 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.
The 3 species of currants listed here are all deciduous California native shrubs found mostly in coastal regions. Although berries are edible, these shrubs are grown for their ornamental value. Fruiting currants are not discussed here.
- Golden currant (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum) is best grown in full sun to promote flowering. Well-mulched soil holds occasional irrigation in summer months, especially for plants grown in full sun. Avoid excessively moist soil that breeds fungal disease.
- Golden currant is a good candidate for growing against a plain backdrop that allows flowers, fruit, and red autumn foliage to stand out.
- Birds and other wildlife feed on fruits.
- It 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.
- In very early winter, prune out rangy branches to create an interesting outline with the deciduous stems. Flowering occurs as early as December through February.
- Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum) reaches about the same 4-6 ft. in height as the golden currant, but is more drought tolerant with age than golden currant.
- This species will begin dormancy in summer if its soil is too dry for too long. Extra water in late spring will keep it evergreen longer.
- During dormancy, thin, leafless stems reveal reddish brown, exfoliating bark.
- Fragrant, light pink, 2-6 in. flower clusters are made up of several individual tubular blossoms terminating with 5 flared petals with white markings.
- Planting sites in full sun provide the heaviest flowering. Bloom often begins in late fall and lasts into spring providing an important source of nectar during the cool season.
- Flowers are followed by small red-to-bluish black fruits attractive to birds.
- Pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) is considered by many gardeners to be the most beautiful of the flowering Ribes. This species is also the most widely planted.
- Edible but rather insipid bluish black berries are relished by birds.
- Deciduous in winter, plants burst into bloom in January or February and may continue into March or April.
- In the wild, blossoms are typically pink-to-rose-red, but named cultivars, which most gardeners prefer, may be red, pale pink, or white.
- Vase-shaped or rounded shrubs 5-12 ft. high are laden with cascading floral clusters 2-8 in. long that stand out against slightly fuzzy, wrinkled, lobed, maple-like leaves.
- 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.
- 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 worked lightly into the soil and a renewed layer of mulch in spring help hold in moisture.
- Plants become more drought resistant with age, sooner near the coast where they can be planted in full sun.
Gooseberries grown for home canning and pies are usually selected for their succulent, colorful fruits and thornless stems. The one species featured here is grown strictly for its decorative summer foliage and ornamental berries.
- Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) is named for the fuchsia-like, tubular red blooms with long, protruding stamens that dangle from horizontal stems.
- The spectacular flowering habit of this gooseberry saves it from being shunned for an abundance of sharp spines and a frequent 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. Bloom often begins in late autumn with the onset of late fall rains.
- Copious thick and glossy, maple-like leaves erupt mostly atop the branches and last until overtaken by dry-season drought.
- Supplemental light watering keeps this gooseberry semi-evergreen; otherwise, after leaf and flower drop, masses of sharp spines are fully exposed on bare branches.
- Moderate summer irrigation forestalls an early dormancy and keeps plants green, but completely dry conditions result in loss of foliage until winter rains initiate leafy growth once again.
- Excessive 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 x 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 gooseberries 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 the bristly, reddish orange berries in summer.