Gardeners bringing back black currants

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Black currant fruits are "of a stinking and somewhat loathing savour, the leaves also are not without the stinking smell," wrote herbalist John Gerard in his famous "Herball" more than 350 years ago. Many people disagree, not only relishing the fruit but also enjoying the aroma of the leaves.

In fact, since Gerard's time, Europeans have grown extremely fond of the fruit. Usually, the fruits are cooked up into a delectable jam or squeezed to make a rich-tasting juice. In the Bordeaux region of France, black currant fruits are made into the liqueur cassis. Black currants are extremely high in vitamin C, and even before vitamins were known, the fruits were valued for their soothing effect on sore throats.

Few people in the United States grow black currants because of a disease that hitchhiked here about a hundred years ago on some pine trees from Ireland. That disease -- white pine blister rust -- needs two different host plants, a white pine and a susceptible sort of currant or gooseberry. To keep this disease from threatening the valuable white pine timber crop, the federal government banned the planting of currants and gooseberries. The ban was not very effective, so was lifted in 1966 and put under state mandate, but by then Americans had forgotten these wonderful fruits.

Black currant is generally susceptible to rust, but thanks to Canadian fruit breeders, a few rust-immune varieties now exist. These varieties are the only ones still permissible to plant in many areas of the United States, and the best of these varieties is one called "Consort."

Besides good fruit and pleasant aroma, black currants have other qualities to recommend their planting. Deer evidently concur with Gerard about the aroma, because they rarely nibble the plants. Insects, diseases, even birds, similarly keep their distance. The only care you need give this plant is to cut stems that bore fruit to ground level.

Black currant is a handsome bush, with lush, forest-green leaves that unfurl very early in the season and hang onto the upright stems well into autumn. No need to choose a site in full sun, as you must with most other fruits, because black currant will grow and fruit well in sun or part shade. One thing NOT to expect from a black currant bush are "black currants" such as you buy in a box. Those are dried Black Corinth grapes, a small grape whose Corinth changed to "currant."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: