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Making Currants Current Again

May 28, 2010

Currants are uncommon in this country. Most likely, your experience begins and ends with the dried ones that look like tiny black raisins. Well, guess what? Those are raisins, produced from the tiny grapes of the Zante variety.

The confusion dates back to the popularization of currants in Renaissance Europe, when they were thought to resemble very small, dried, seedless grapes shipped from Corinth, Greece, the word "Corinth" having gradually morphed into "currant." Those tiny grapes are now sold afresh, too, as Champagne grapes -- not, however, because they are made into Champagne, but because they are so small they look like little bubbles.

Then and now, currants are prized for their flavor, sweetness, vitamins and antioxidants. No thorns hinder picking, and no hard seeds preclude nibbling them straight from the bush. They come in three colors: red, white and black, all of which are separate species. White currants are considered the sweetest. The red, also delicious, are the most beautiful and make a stunning red jelly. The black ones are the most valuable nutritionally and though tart are fine for cooking, as well as for the famous French liqueur creme de cassis.

If you are wondering what has kept these treats from the garden and the produce bin, it was their banishment 100 years ago for harboring white pine blister rust, a disease fatal to a valuable native conifer. That rationale has all but disappeared, however, as other hosts have been implicated and rust-resistant currant varieties developed. It is still illegal in many states to plant the less resistant black ones.

Red currants, on the other hand, are usually allowed and are plants that no edible landscape should be without. The fruits, dangling on stems called strigs, look like jewels when backlit by the sun. The five-foot-tall bushes are easy to site and maintain in the average yard.

Though considered a northern plant that suffers in hot weather, currants will grow in the Washington area if given partial shade. Yes, that's right: a fruit that ripens effectively in leafy yards. You can even plant it on the north side of a building if there is sun early or late in the day.

It tolerates clay soil -- prefers it, even, for its moisture-holding capacity. Bringing it through a Washington summer is not a problem if you keep the ground irrigated. A simple soaker hose does the trick, along with moisture-retentive soil enriched with organic matter. Stems two or three years old bear the best fruits, so older ones should be pruned out in late winter or early spring.

Currants are among the first fruits to ripen in summer. It is not too late to order some from Edible Landscaping (http://www.ediblelandscaping.com) in Afton, Va. The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers a good article on the cultivation of this fine old fruit, just waiting to be rediscovered (search "currant cultivars" at http://pubs.ext.vt.edu).

Article copyright of Barbara Damrosch, author of "The Garden Primer." Originally published in The Washington Post and reprinted with permission. Photo credit: Dolorix Away

Comments

I live in S.C.,zone 7b/8a & ordered my Red Lake currant from HenryFields.com. I got a Gooseberry at the same time, it fruited last year & this year. The currant lived,but did not bloom, I am hopful for next year. I have learned more about currants in the last 2 minutes, then the last 20 years. Thank you again for taking the time to share the great article with us. Joel
I love currants! They grow wild everywhere where I grew up. I collected enough to make currant jam one year. I remember my mother thought I was insane since the berries were so small and we had no idea how to get all of the tiny stems off. I believe we ended up making the jelly instead :) Very tasty little berries and beautiful in the garden. Great article!
Redcurrant juice is high in pectin. It is good for adding to low pectin fruits like strawberries when making jam, so that the jam sets quicker. Blackcurrants can be picked by cutting off the whole branch. Then the fruit can be strigged off the branch using a fork when you are sat in a comfortable chair. The bushes need to be pruned after fruiting anyway, so you can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Thanks Barbara, 3 things I miss from my New England gardens are currants, gooseberries, and rhubarb. You just reminded me to call my brother in New Hampshire and offer to swap him a half dozen jars of mulberry preserves for a half dozen of his current preserves. Everett from South Carolina
I was raised in the 1950's on weekends at my Grandmother's farm in upstate New York eating gooseberries, grapes, raspberries, currants and blueberries, among other tasty delights. They exported apples and pears to Liverpool, England to supplement their almost self-sustaining farm income. I would like for my grandchildren to have the same tasty delights available to them when they visit our home here in Portsmouth, Virginia. However, I am having a problem. I have a Red Lake currant bush that is three years old now. I took great care that when I planted it, it would not be in the scorching sun, knowing about its sensitivity to heat. It gets morning sun for about four hours, and very late afternoon sun for about 1 hour. It is under the edge of the shade of a large pine tree, which protects it from the hot noonday sun. I pruned it according to VA Coop guidelines, yet at three years old, it is only about 15 inches tall, and has not had a single berry for these three years. It is in a good bed of soil and compost, and I water it about every two weeks. I am considering moving it to the north side of my house to get more morning sun, but no afternoon sun. Does anyone have suggestions that might convince it to bear fruit? Information would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

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