Growing Red and White Currants
A crop insert from the Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook, Small Farm Center
Ribes rubrum, Ribes sativum, and Ribes petraeum are members of the Saxifragaceae (saxifrage) family.
Red and white currants are essentially the same fruit, differing only in color. Cultivars come from combinations of three main species of Ribes, all of them deciduous shrubs. Ribes rubrum is an upright shrub found from northern Europe to Siberia and Manchuria. Ribes sativum (R. vulgare), which includes the large-fruited Cherry cultivar, is a spreading shrub from the temperate region of western Europe. The vigorous Ribes petraeum, which includes the Prince Albert and Goudouin cultivars, is a native of high mountain areas of north Africa and Europe.
Flowers are borne toward the base of 1-year-old stems and on spurs on older stems. Each bud opens into a number of flowers that are joined together on a delicate, drooping stem called a strig. Most cultivars have self-fertile flowers, but a few are partially self-sterile.
When picked just after they turn red, red currants are unsurpassed for jelly making. They are also used for pies and sauce (sometimes in combination with other fruit) and for wine. The crushed fruit makes a cool, refreshing summertime drink. Some currants can be eaten out of hand if left on the bush for about three weeks after the berries first turn red (red cultivars) or translucent (white cultivars). Currants are popular among northern Europeans. They are little known in America because they were banned by federal law in 1920 as a supposed carrier of white pine blister rust. The ban was lifted in 1966, and currants are now enjoying some renewed interest in the U.S.
Currants thrive in cool, well-drained fertile soil, in full sun or in partial shade. In warm regions, the bushes prefer heavy soil and should be planted in partial shade or on a north-facing slope. An organic mulch can be used to protect the roots and keep the soil cool and moist.
Propagation and care
Currants are propagated from hardwood cuttings of year-old wood. They usually are grown as bushes spaced 5 feet apart. To grow currants in tree form, remove all but the top three buds from the cutting so sprouts will not grow from below the ground. Set cuttings in the ground in the fall or early spring.
Annual pruning will increase yield and keep plants manageable and healthy. Prune so that most fruits will be borne on spurs of 2- and 3-year-old wood. To maintain a supply of two or three each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old stems, use a renewal method of pruning. In the first winter, remove all but two or three stems at ground level. The second winter, remove all but two or three of the stems that grew the previous season. At this point the bush will have two or three each of 1- and 2-year-old stems. Continue this practice every winter. In the fourth winter, cut away any stems more than 3 years old at their bases and shorten long or low-hanging branches.
If you want to grow different cultivars in a small area or against a wall, you can grow currants in cordons as single stems. Plant cordons 1 1/2 feet apart or train them against the wall. To develop a cordon, shorten the single upright stem each winter to 6 inches of new growth and shorten any laterals.
Currants have a moderate need for nitrogen and a high potassium requirement. An annual dressing of 1/2 ounce of actual potassium per square yard will prevent potassium deficiency, which is visible as scorching of the leaf margin. Currants are sensitive to chloride ion toxicity, so muriate of potash (potassium chloride) should not be used.
Pests and diseases
Currants can be grown with little or no spraying. They may require treatments including spraying if pests such as aphids, spider mites, and currant borers cause damage. The imported currantworm, usually a gooseberry pest, can defoliate currant plants quickly. An appropriate insecticide should be applied as soon as currantworm is detected. By cleaning up leaves in autumn, you can help prevent potential disease. Fungicides can be used to control powdery mildew, leaf spot, and anthracnose.
Harvest the whole strig intact unless the fruit is to be used immediately. Ripe currants are very soft and easily injured.
Note: Red Lake, Wilder, and Minnesota 71 are excellent cultivars and are widely available. Jonkheer van Tets and Cherry are resistant to powdery mildew. The following nurseries offer more extensive selections of cultivars: Alexander Eppler Ltd., P.O. Box 16513, Seattle, WA 98116-0513.International Ribes Association, c/o Anderson Valley Agricultural Institute, P.O. Box 130, Boonville, CA 95415.Southmeadow Fruit Gardens, Lakeside, MI 49116.Whitman Farms Nursery, 1420 Beaumont NW, Salem, OR 97304.
Antonelli, A., et al. 1988. Small fruit pests - Biology, diagnosis, and management. Publication BE 1388, Washington State University Agricultural Communications, Pullman, WA.
Baker, Harry. 1986. The fruit garden displayed. Cassell Ltd., The Royal Horticultural Society, London.
Galletta, G., and D. Himelrick, eds. 1990. Small fruit crop management. Prentice Hall Press, West Nyack, NY.
Ourecky, D. K. 1977. Blackberries, currants, and gooseberries. Cooperative Extension Publication IB 97. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Reich, Lee. 1991. Uncommon fruits worthy of attention: A gardener's guide. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, MA.
Prepared by Lee Reich.