What’s black or white or red all over? Or sometimes greeny yellow? Curants of course!
Untangling the currants is not straightforward; the Latin name Ribes includes all of our fruiting currants but also the gooseberry (think of it as a large, prickly currant – though to a botanist, they are all berries). To add to the confusion, dried currants bought from the shop are actually a type of grape (from Corinth, from whence the name derives).
Currants are North European natives, therefore well adapted to UK weather. They are an excellent choice for a garden because they produce a lot of fruit in a compact space for relatively little effort. They are also more tolerant of shade than most fruit, especially if you live in the southern half of the UK so they are a useful plant for small gardens where sunlight (and space) is at a premium.
These fruits like some sun, a moist earth and a slightly acid rather than alkaline soil. The crop tends to ripen all at once, which is why summer brings a frenzy of cordial, jam and jelly making activities to preserve them. However, in this age of freezers and juicers, I think it is just as good to freeze them and chuck the odd handful into a fruit smoothie.
During WW2, the government was worried about the lack of oranges so provided a free blackcurrant syrup ration for children to boost vitamin C. This probably explains why the British have a particular fondness for blackcurrant cordials, though a word to anyone tempted to make one. I once spent the best part of a day harvesting, boiling, cooling, squeezing, straining and reboiling blackcurrants. The resulting small bottle tasted identical to a certain well known brand, so I’ve never again bothered. Instead, I just pick and add to bourbon whisky, with a little sugar, to make a much more satisfying (and quick) alcoholic version.
Blackcurrant leaves smell strongly of the fruits and they can be eaten when very young as a salad leaf, or when older, as a flavouring in ice-creams and sorbets. Gooseberries often ripen at the same time as elderflowers and they make a great flavour combination for summer puddings and preserves.
They all need some kind of pruning for best effect. Cut blackcurrants stems over 4 years old right down to the base and allow new shoots to grow on. The other fruits can be trained to grow either as a standard (like a mini tree), fanned or cordoned against a support, or left as a bush. A warning about the thornier gooseberries – they guard their fruit viciously, so we have trained them as single stemmed cordons, which allows for a much less painful harvesting experience.
As with most native plants, there will be some native pests to deal with. The biggest are the birds. They love the berries and frequently damage the bushes by landing on them to feed. The best solution is to cover with a light net from when the fruit starts to colour to harvest time (mid May to late July for us in the South East). Gooseberries can also have their leaves stripped by the caterpillar of the gooseberry sawfly. On a small scale, vigilance and squishing is the best solution. They lay their eggs at the base and work upwards so look out for lacy leaves low down.
And finally, currant bushes make great gifts…because they are so easy to propagate. When you prune in winter, put a few of the prunings cut side down in a spare patch of soil. As long as they don’t completely dry out, by the following winter you will have a collection of rooted mini-bushes, ready for replanting or to give to friends – truly there will be Jam Tomorrow!