American Heirlooms: Planting Gooseberries

Find the right variety, growing conditions, and cultivation techniques for planting gooseberries.

| May/June 2016

America has seemingly abandoned the gooseberry, forgetting its flavor and denying its place in the garden. At one time, gooseberry bushes were a common sight in the garden and orchard, until an imported disease struck, of all things, the lumber industry. Today, few people have tasted a gooseberry, and if they have, most likely it was green, unripe and sour.

Our gardens and pantries are poorer for it. Gooseberry bushes make an excellent addition to nearly any cool-climate garden or orchard north of the Mason-Dixon Line. They’re easy to care for, have few heavy pest or disease problems, and stay relatively small. Left to grow unchecked, a gooseberry bush can reach 3 to 6 feet in height and spread, and can easily be managed with pruning. There is one catch, however: Depending on the variety, gooseberries can be armed with wicked thorns. Are the berries worth a little pain and patience? You bet!

Gooseberries ripen to a range of flavors and colors, from pale yellow (“white”) through pink, peach and rose, to deep red, purple and nearly black. Their translucent flesh and netted, veined skins glisten and glow with an inner light in the sun. A remnant of the blossom, the calyx, dangles like a tassel from the navel of each berry. The berries themselves hang below the branch like chandelier crystals, in singles, pairs or trios.

Sauce for the goose?

Gooseberries are divided according to flavor: culinary and dessert berries. Culinary berries tend to be small, green and tart, and are rendered into sauces for meats, oily fish like mackerel, and yes, goose and other fowl. While some varieties are strictly culinary, any gooseberry picked green can be used as a culinary berry in a pinch.

Dessert berries, properly ripened, are another story entirely. Their crisp, thin skins surrounding a succulent sweet pulp and small edible seeds, pop like a grape between your teeth. The flavor has also been compared to grapes and occasionally apricots or strawberries, though with greater complexity, tartness and aroma.

As the name implies, dessert gooseberries make excellent pies, cobblers, fools (stewed fruit folded into whipped cream) and breads. Even better, they’re delicious when plucked right from the bush.

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