"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Monday, April 13, 2009

Currants, Gooseberries, and Josta Berries

I was first introduced to currants as a small child while tagging along with my grandmother as she wandered the forests and roadsides picking wild berries. Those are days I will never forget as I not only learned about currants but service berries, thimbleberries, wild strawberries and many other wild edibles as well. She has long since passed on but I am sure it would make her happy to know the knowledge she imparted upon me has not been lost.

It seems as though currants, gooseberries, and josta berries (a cross between black currants and gooseberries) are not all that popular in the states, but are held in much higher regard by Europeans. I'm not sure why as they are such nice vigorously productive bushes. Not only are these members of the Ribes genus high in nutrition but also flourish in a wide array growing conditions and are easily propagated. One bush can turn into numerous productive bushes within a few years time. They do really well in partial shade with a nice well draining soil but can also be grown in full sun and heavy, even clay, soil if it has been improved upon enough to allow for drainage and root development. We are lucky as we have lots of shade and can provide an environment that the bushes seem to thrive in.

We have around 25 bushes in various stages of growth and look forward to a nice crop of berries every year. We use them in everything from fillings for puff pancakes to smoothies and any bad ones are a perfect addition to our chickens diet. I try to add a few new bushes every year through rooting hardwood cuttings and have had a near perfect success rate as they are so easily propagated.

There are various ways to propagate these bushes, my preference is with hardwood cuttings. In the fall or early spring while the plant is still dormant I simply cut 8-12 " sections off 1 year old wood about the size of a pencil, a little bigger or smaller will make no difference.

Older wood is recognizable by its darker bark and is usually much thicker.

Once you find a good place in the garden where the cuttings can root undisturbed, simply poke a dibber stick into the soil making a hole so as not to damage the nodes when you gently push the cutting in approximately 3/4 it's length leaving only the topmost bud or two exposed.

Remember to keep track of which end is up, this is pretty easy to tell on currants but not so much on other plants that can be rooted in the same manner such as dormant grapes. I set my cuttings in a place where the soil can be kept moist and has some protection from the sun and in about 4-6 weeks they will have new roots coming from a number of areas along the stem and can be transplanted to their new home.

Another method of propagating is called layering, we do this this by bending a low-growing branch to the ground and covering it with soil. The branch can be kept under the soil by weighing it down with a rock, or more soil to hold it in place. While this works well on currants, we mostly use this technique on blackberries and black raspberries all summer long and find it to be most effective. Once the roots are established, we simply cut the branch off dig it up and plant in its permanent location. Again this will take around 4 weeks or more.

A final way to generate roots is called mound layering. Although we have never tried mound layering it apparently works well if one is propagating a large number of plants. The plant is cut back to the ground while dormant and, in mid summer, dirt is mounded over the newly emerged shoots covering them about half of their length and roots will be produced on the portion covered with soil.

You can also germinate the berries seeds if they are stratified for three months at temperatures just above freezing, the refrigerator works perfect for this. We do stratify other seeds but have never tried this with currants or their kin. Supposedly the seedlings are very prolific and will bear fruit within two or three years.

In 1907 currant production was banned in the U.S. when it was discovered that members of the ribes genus, especially black currants, were host to white pine blister rust, a fungus that uses currants as a host plant to spread from tree to tree. The quarantine on ribe growing was lifted in 1966 when rust-resistant currant varieties were developed. Today in the Northwest, there are no federal restrictions on growing any of the ribes genus. There are a few states that still do not allow for the shipping of currants or gooseberries, as near as I can tell they are Delaware, Maine, N. Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and West Virginia. Black currants cannot be sent to those states or Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island. I find this interesting since the woods in Northern Idaho are full of wild currants and white pine trees, perhaps they have built up an immunity to the fungus.

It's unfortunate that so many people are missing out on such an easily grown and propagated source of nutrition. Currants, josta berries, and gooseberries are extremely healthy and some research is showing black currants to possibly have higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than any other fruit. Perhaps our taste buds have been so dulled by a conveniently obtained plethora of mass produced factory food that we are no longer willing to take advantage of what nature so readily provides. For us, the berries contribute yet another beneficial option in our ever expanding array of food choices as we continue down our path of achieving a lifestyle of health and food self-sufficiency.


Silke Powers said...

Hi! I found your blog a couple of days ago and find it incredibly inspiring. I grew up in Germany and both currants and gooseberries were a common fruit we ate and grew. I always love it when I find them here. :-) Silke

Mr. H. said...

Hi Silke,

Funny I was just looking at a german gardening blog at http://www.noordinaryhomestead.com/

Like you, I grew up eating currants and now have gooseberries and josta as well. They really are good, and grow so well in the colder regions. Which is a good thing...because as I type this it is starting to snow outside.

Thank you for stopping by and I hope you are able to find more of both those berries in the future.


Anonymous said...

trick to remeber which end is which is to one end straight and the other at an angle.

Mr. H. said...


Cut one end at an angle, now why didn't I think of that...the simplest things.

Thanks so much,


randi said...

Hi Mike,
Another great post from you and, as ever, timely for me. I put my first gooseberries in last year and hope to add more this year. I've only one black currant but you are right, what a healthy, carefree plant. I thank you for your instructions on propagation methods.
Thanks again, Randi

Mr. H. said...

Hi Randi,

You will love the currants and gooseberries. The currants come on rather quickly but the gooseberry may take a year or two to get established before it begins to put out. The best part is that once you have one bush established you never have to purchase another one.

Since you live in a similar zone it is possible that you may have an issue, as we do, with currant fruit flys. The link below has good advice on dealing with them, although I would skip the pesticide section.


Vadim said...

Me, my wife and 7 yearold daughter really love gooseberries, and currants.
We eat them whole our lives back in East Europe.
Now we will try to grow them in our backyard. We live in Central New Jersey. What is the best soil to use?
Thank you,

Mr. H. said...

Hello Vadim,

They will do great in any soil that drains well, they are pretty easy to grow. I would pick up any bag of good composted soil from the store if you don't have your own compost pile and mix it into the soil before planting.

Loosen the soil deep and all around where the currants are to be planted. Let me know how they do for you.

Thanks for visiting,


Malay-Kadazan girl said...

I have been contemplating to grow a berry plant but not sure yet which variety yet for quite sometime. Thank you for showing different methods to grow them.

Mountain Walker said...

Yup, I'm one of those Montana growers. It's very frustrating to think that I can't even try to grow any of these great berries because of "what might happen". I guess if I value the forests I have to just let it go. Maybe if I look hard enough I can find a grower that would send me some canes anyway. Or better yet, I should just scour the woods to find established berries bushes and take cuttings. We started our asparagus bed with volunteer plants we found in the wild. Hmmmm. It's a thought!

Great site. I'll visit often!

Mr. H. said...

Elizabeth - They are wonderful berry bushes. I would recommend the delicious red currants over the black ones if you had to make a choice...the black ones are a bit on the strong flavored side. The josta and gooseberries have a nice flavor as well. If you don't find any remember to get back with me in the early spring and maybe I can help you out.:)

Mountain Walker said...

Great! Thanks!
(Do you think the "berry police" will pay me a visit if I get some gooseberry cuttings from you?)

Mr. H. said...

Elizabeth - I believe that the main issue was with the wild black currants that grow almost everywhere we go hiking...which is why I have always thought this issue was so ridiculous as the forests are full of currants. Remind me about this in April.:)

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