A Currant Affair

By: Paul Lee Cannon

Paul Lee Cannon is a freelance journalist who’s written for The American Gardener, the San Jose Mercury News, and the…

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Pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) in Vancouver, BC. Author’s photograph

Decidedly underused, the genus Ribes is available in a dizzying number of ornamental species and cultivars for the West Coast gardener. My romance with the West’s native currants and gooseberries, both in the genus Ribes, began in 2005, but I would not call it love at first sight. It would be better described as a love that grew over time.

I purchased plants of pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) and evergreen currant (R. viburnifolium), two of the better-known, more widely available species, in one-gallon containers at a Merritt College (Oakland) plant sale. They were a little underwhelming, as so many California native plants are in nursery containers, but I had heard and read good things about them, and hoped that the rewards would be plentiful once they settled in. I knew that my garden had the ideal conditions to nourish them. But would these new additions to my humble patch of landscape prove needy? Demanding? Trustworthy?

I decided to give them a chance and am happy that I did. They continue to thrive in my garden today. Since those inaugural plantings, I’ve introduced a few more into my Oakland garden. I obtained some, such as R. sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘Inverness White,’ from cuttings started during a propagation course at Merritt. A little rooting hormone, a perlite-based medium, and consistent moisture helped establish roots in six to eight weeks; then, straight into the ground they went. All grown up now and in vibrant health, they anchor my woodsy garden, lining paths and rubbing elbows with native coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), dogwood (Cornus), and others that appreciate the site’s dappled light, acidic soil, and decent drainage.

“Ribes” is derived from the Persian or Arabic word ribas, meaning “acid-tasting” (presumably a reference to the edible fruits). Placed in the gooseberry family (Grossulariaceae), the genus includes close to 150 species. Most are native to northern temperate regions, with a few found in South America. The genus comprises both deciduous and evergreen shrubs; those possessing spines are known as gooseberries, those without spines as currants. Edible currants and gooseberries are mostly native to Europe and Asia. The western American species discussed here are most often grown for their beautiful flowers, although many of them produce tasty fruits.

Ribes sanguineum var. sanguineum ‘Pulborough Scarlet’. Photograph by RGT

Good for the Garden

Gardeners searching for easy, adaptable, and versatile shrubs should consider Ribes. They put on a good flower show, offer shelter and food for birds and other wildlife, and easily fill in those barren spots in the garden—as an understory plant or tall groundcover. Once established, they require minimal care other than a little water and occasional pruning. I water mine infrequently and prune them back only when they start poking into a pathway.

For all of these reasons, plus the fact that Ribes was the first California native plant that I introduced into my garden, members of this genus will always have a plot of their own in my heart. This “genius genus” has seriously grown on me.

With their low-maintenance/high-reward appeal, I’m surprised I haven’t seen more ornamental currants and gooseberries in residential gardens. So I asked a couple of experts for their opinion.

Phil Van Soelen, co-owner of California Flora Nursery in Fulton, California, offers a good explanation for why Ribes isn’t a more popular choice with home gardeners: “They dismiss it as a fussy plant” after first killing it with too much water or not enough. “In most situations, Ribes absolutely need water, especially in hotter, inland climates (like that of Sebastopol). At the same time, warm and wet conditions can kill them.”

Glenn Keator, California native plant botanist and educator, believes that Ribes aren’t more widely used partly because of availability. “Nurseries don’t carry Ribes unless the nursery is focused on native plants. Quite a few of the nurseries do carry R. sanguineum, so that’s probably going to be the most basic choice.”

Van Soelen, who introduced the cultivar ‘Heart’s Delight’ and propagates several difficult-to-find selections, says first-timers are likely to be smitten once their Ribes is established. “Just a tiny bit of finesse” is all it takes, he says. “They require so little care—other than a little water.”

Ease of care is just one of several rewards, according to Keator, who grows several species in his own Bay Area garden.

“Ribes reach maturity fairly quickly. They’re not terribly fussy, except they need a little bit of drainage. They have attractive foliage and beautiful flowers, and one of the great things about them is that so many of them bloom really early. In fact, R. malvaceum actually blooms in the wintertime. Another advantage is that they’re habitat plants; hummingbirds love to feed on the nectar. If you have flowers in your garden all year, you don’t have to have a hummingbird feeder; you simply provide them with plants they would naturally visit.”

White flowering currant (Ribes indecorum). Photograph by Bart O’Brien

A Selection of Currants

Last summer, I discovered that several West Coast nurseries propagate and/or sell a surprising variety of native currants and gooseberries. Whether you are trying Ribes for the first time or adding to your existing collection (like I plan to do), here’s a guide to the species and cultivars that are grown and sold in the West.

Unless otherwise noted in the following discussion: all plants are deciduous, prefer part sun to shade, and require good drainage and occasional to moderate water in summer; all are hardy to at least 10°F; most have an upright habit and grow with relative speed; all have flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds, bees, and other insect pollinators; most have fruits that are popular with robins, mockingbirds, thrashers, grosbeaks, and other birds less likely to hang out at a feeder. Sunset climate zones are shown in brackets.

The species of Ribes that are known as currants lack spines, or have few, on stems, leaves, sepals, and fruits. Leaves are often pungently aromatic and sometimes viscous (sticky); flowers are usually fragrant, bloom early in the year, and are produced in pendant racemes. (The species known as gooseberries will be covered in a future issue of Pacific Horticulture.)

A loosely espaliered golden currant (Ribes aureum). Photographs by Phil Van Soelen, except as noted

Ribes aureum var aureum
Golden currants are fast-growing shrubs, three to six feet tall, with an upright habit that permits training into different shapes. They have small, glossy, light green, palmately lobed leaves and short clusters of bright yellow, sometimes fragrant flowers that emerge in early to mid-spring; the translucent berries may be yellow, orange, red, or purple and are excellent for desserts and jellies. Plants spread by layered stems or rhizomes; give them plenty of space to roam or prune suckers to control. Golden currants are tolerant of a variety of conditions, from nearly full sun to shade, and complement coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), coffeeberry, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), and ceanothus of various kinds. This species is native from the central Sierra Nevada east to the Rocky Mountains. [1-12, 14-23]

Ribes aureum var. gracillimum
This variant of golden currant has yellow flowers that turn red on aging and also tolerates a wide range of conditions. Plants are almost evergreen along the coast and make a good ground cover under oaks; they grow three to six feet tall and six feet wide. The yellow berries turn black as they ripen. This variant is native from Riverside County to the southern Bay Area. [6-10, 14-24]

Ribes indecorum
Bushy and similar in appearance to some forms of R. sanguineum, the smaller white flowering currant reaches only six to eight feet tall and wide. Attractive reddish-brown bark contrasts nicely with the resinous bright green leaves. Dense, showy clusters of white flowers appear in mid- to late winter. Native to chaparral and coastal scrub in the southern regions of California, it is drought tolerant once established, preferring full sun and little to no summer water. [7-9, 11, 14-24]

Ribes malvaceum var. malvaceum ‘Dancing Tassels’ begins flowering in November. Photograph by RGT

Ribes malvaceum var. malvaceum
Chaparral currant blooms in winter, with numerous clusters of fragrant pink flowers from late October to March; hummingbirds simply love it. Native to chaparral, oak woodland, and closed cone coniferous forest in the Coast Ranges from Marin to Los Angeles counties, it prefers more sun in coastal and cooler climates, but part shade inland. It is right at home under oaks. The most drought-tolerant of the pink currants, chaparral currant will go dormant under drought stress in late summer; new leaves usually appear once autumn rains have moistened the soil. It usually reaches five to six feet in height but wider. [6-9, 14- 24] Several cultivars have been selected of this variant:

‘Dancing Tassels’
Introduced by Bart O’Brien at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, this cultivar is notable for its long, drooping clusters of pale rose flowers from November to March. Hummingbirds love it all winter long.

‘Montara Rose’
Selected from near the summit of Montara Mountain in San Mateo County by Roger Raiche, its flowers have rose red buds that open a dark rose color in December and January. It is somewhat more compact than the other selections.

‘Wunderlich’
Nevin Smith introduced this selection with dense, arching clusters of small pink and white blossoms, which grace its upright branches in late winter and early spring.

Ribes malvaceum var. viridifolium ‘Ortega Beauty’
This version of chaparral currant, from the coastal mountains of Southern California, is distinguished by its resinous, deeper green leaves. Introduced by Nevin Smith, this colorful selection produces graceful, drooping clusters of red flowers all winter long on six-foot-tall shrubs. Leaves drop soon after fruit ripens.

Ribes nevadense
Mountain pink currant resembles R. sanguineum var. glutinosum but grows at higher elevations (4,000-8,000’) throughout California. Ideal for planting around a mountain cabin, it can tolerate drought conditions as well as riparian settings. Its drooping clusters of pale pink flowers appear from April to July on shrubs of three to six feet in height.

Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘Tranquillon Ridge’

Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum
One of over 430 California native plants introduced to the public by horticultural pioneer Theodore Payne, pink flowering currant is widely available and versatile. Planted in masses at the edge of a shady spot, espaliered against an east-facing wall, or used as an understory shrub, it is harmonious with toyon, oaks, and coffeeberry. Its handsome, upright form (six to ten feet tall) is useful in narrow spaces. Pendant clusters of pink to red flowers appear in late winter and early spring, typically just before new leaves emerge; leaves are sticky and pungent. Dark blue berries are popular with birds in fall. Found from Humboldt to Santa Barbara counties in the Coast Ranges, this species is best with summer water in hot inland areas. [4-9, 14-24] There are numerous selections of this variety, including:

‘Album’
This is a moderate grower with pure white blossoms on attractive arching branches. Light green leaves turn orange, red, and yellow in fall.

‘Claremont’
Introduced by the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, this cultivar is excellent in dry shade, as found around native oaks. Its vase-like silhouette shows off the pink flowers well. Adaptable to most soils, including clay, it will grow faster with summer water.

‘Elk River Red’
A quick growing, upright habit, with a vase shape, this selection produces large clusters of rosy red flowers in early spring.

‘Heart’s Delight’
A coastal Marin County selection introduced by Phil Van Soelen, of California Flora Nursery, this produces long, drooping racemes of deep rosy pink blossoms. It is best with light shade in inland gardens.

‘Inverness White’
Discovered by Roger Raiche on Inverness Ridge in Marin County, this is a quick-growing shrub with an upright habit. Showy white flower clusters take on a rosy hue as they fade.

‘Spring Showers’
Introduced by Nevin Smith of Suncrest Nurseries, this bushy, roughly vase-shaped selection is notable for its long clusters of bright pink flowers.

‘Tranquillon Ridge’
Discovered on Tranquillon Ridge in Santa Barbara, and introduced by Native Sons Nursery, this is a fast-growing, upright shrub to ten feet tall and wide. Dark pink flower buds open into medium pink flowers in early spring.

Ribes sanguineum var. sanguineum ‘Brocklebankii’

Ribes sanguineum var. sanguineum
Red flowering currant may be the most widely grown of all species. A fast grower with an upright (six to twelve feet tall), vase-like silhouette, it makes an ideal background plant for the woodland garden. Large clusters of pendulous white to red flowers appear in early to mid-spring; black fruits are fairly tasty. Leaves are less sticky than R. sanguineum var. glutinosum. Native from the North Coast Ranges of California to British Columbia, often in moist situations alongside streams. [4-7, 14-18] There are many selections of this variant, including:

‘Barrie Coate’
Discovered by Barrie Coate near the Geysers in Sonoma County, this moderate grower with a bushy, upright habit, produces short clusters of fragrant, deep pink blossoms from February through March. Adaptable to most soils, it tolerates full sun and infrequent watering.

‘Brocklebankii’
Long grown in England, this is a distinctive, five-foot-tall shrub with gorgeous golden foliage in spring that becomes a striking chartreuse in summer. Rosy pink flowers appear in early spring, just as the leaves are emerging. This is slower growing than most cultivars, with leaves prone to burning in full sun; some shade is best.

‘King Edward VII’
Large, vivid, bright red flowers appear in spring on stiff, upright stems. Drought tolerant once established, it flowers best in full sun but also grows well in part shade.

‘Pokey’s Pink’
Discovered in the Columbia Gorge, this cultivar has a vigorous, upright habit and pendulous clusters of candy pink flowers, flushed white, in early spring.

‘Pulborough Scarlet’
Floriferous and fast growing to eight feet tall, its flowers have deep red sepals and white petals in spring.

‘White Icicle’
An introduction from the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, with pure white flowers on a graceful shrub (six feet tall and wide).

Evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium) makes an excellent groundcover under oaks. Photograph by Carol Bornstein.

Evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium) makes an excellent groundcover under oaks. Photograph by Bart O’Brien

Ribes viburnifolium
A spreading shrub that’s popular as a tall ground cover for dry shade, evergreen currant (or Catalina perfume) bears little resemblance to other Ribes. Its shiny, dark-green, leathery, ovate leaves are held on burgundy-hued stems, with a fountain-like growth habit; leaves have a pleasing, spicy scent. Clusters of tiny, star-like, brownish purple flowers in late winter and spring are followed by small red orange to yellow berries, usually only in coastal gardens. Native to Santa Catalina Island and Baja California, it grows in full shade to part shade. Adaptable to most well-drained soils and extremely drought tolerant in clay, it needs little maintenance and can aid in erosion control on dry slopes. [5, 7-9, 14-17, 19- 24]

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A Ribes Resource Guide