Eric La Fountaine took today’s Botany Photo of the Day in our food garden. Douglas Justice and Steve Coughlin co-wrote the entry.
Ribes is a genus of about 150 deciduous flowering shrubby species—the currants and gooseberries—which are primarily native to temperate areas in the Northern Hemisphere, with a few species occurring in South America. Gooseberries are differentiated from currants on account of their spiny stems and often larger fruit. Though they have acquired a measure of notoriety as hosts for the dreaded white pine blister rust (their cultivation actually remains prohibited in some U.S. states), Ribes species—red and black currants in particular—nevertheless have a rich and diverse history as raw materials for human pleasure and practice: the plants have been grown as ornamentals, and they have been used as astringents, as treatments for rheumatism and fever, and as antidotes for digestive, kidney, and hormonal problems as well. Interestingly, the common designator, "currant," is actually a misnomer, and is thought to have derived from a historical mutation of the Anglo-Norman French "raisins de Corauntz" (grapes of Corinth): the dried fruits of Ribes are easily mistaken for the tiny raisins that were famously exported throughout Europe from the Greek city of that name.
Ribes rubrum (red currant) cultivars, which can grow to a height of nearly 2 metres with a spread of almost 3 metres, were first produced in large quantities in France and Belgium in the 17th century. This rugged species is hardy to zone 6 and enjoys loamy soil combined with either full sun or partial shade. The plants need good air circulation in order to overcome their susceptibility to mildew. The small, pendulous flowers of 'Red Lake', which bloom in late July, are a somewhat unimpressive green-yellow, but they soon enough develop into the sour, fibrous, and vitamin C-rich red berries that are used in preserves, puddings, and pies. Of course, humans are not alone in their appreciation of this sapid little fruit. Birds of all kinds love the berries, and they therefore lay vigorous siege to the plants in order to reap this tart reward. Depending on where Ribes is sited and for what purpose it is grown, this siege can be either to the gardener’s delight or to her despair.