American Heirlooms: Planting Gooseberries

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.

Ancient, tangled family tree

The gooseberry is an ancient garden fruit; old enough that no one really knows how it got its name. Some say the sauce it provided the goose (and gander) gave the gooseberry its name. Others look to the German “krausbeere,” Dutch “‘kruisbes,” or French “grosielle.” No one knows for certain, and likely no one ever will.

Botanically, things aren’t much clearer. Gooseberries belong to the genus Ribes. Ribes contains 150 species, among them several wild species of gooseberry, red and white currants, black currants and buffalo currants. Zante currants, which are really grapes, don’t belong in the genus, however. Cultivated gooseberries represent two distinct species, the American Ribes hirtellum (hairy or hairystem gooseberry), and the English R. uva-crispa (crisp egg or European gooseberry), along with multiple hybrids of the two species, and even hybrids with the black currant, R. nigrum. At one time, both species were thought to be one; the name R. grossularia is still used occasionally. In general, English gooseberries tend toward larger fruit with robust flavor, while American gooseberries carry greater disease resistance and fewer thorns.

Gooseberries have been the darlings of northern Europe for centuries, though Roman palates were less than impressed. In their opinions, gooseberries were hardly worth notice, requiring cold weather and cold temperaments to be appreciated. Northern Europeans disagreed, growing the berries widely. English gardeners took their love of the berry so far as to institute gooseberry clubs and competitions in the past two centuries.

Meanwhile, across the pond …

English colonists brought their beloved gooseberries along with them to America, and in the 1800s, Americans began crossbreeding the two species, producing promising new varieties such as Houghton, Downing and Mountain.

Disaster struck late in the century, in the form of white-pine blister rust, a fungal disease that alternately infects Ribes family members and white pines. While Ribes can easily survive infection, the disease kills pines – quickly. At the time, white pines were a valuable part of the American lumber industry, so important that nurseries imported cheap seedlings from France, seedlings infected with rust. The rust ripped through American forests like wildfire.

Early attempts at control included import quarantines, but it was too late. Many states banned Ribes members, followed by the federal government in the early part of the 20th century. Depression-era work programs scoured the forests for Ribes, no one could buy gooseberries or currants, and federal agents and foresters confiscated established plants, ripping them out by their roots. Ironically, gooseberries are poor rust carriers, getting an undeserved reputation from black currants and wild currants, which do spread the disease readily.

The federal ban was lifted in 1966, but the damage was done. The gooseberry industry has never recovered. Many state laws remain, some restricting all Ribes, some allowing gooseberries but not currants, and others that are officially no longer enforced.

Gooseberries in the garden

As confusing as gooseberry family matters may be, their care couldn’t be simpler. They grow well from the Arctic Circle to even Zone 6, and a little lower with decent shade; the gooseberry is one of the few fruits that will fruit well in shade. They aren’t picky about soil quality or structure either, growing happily in sandy, heavy or bony soils, but they do demand good drainage and will not tolerate wet feet. Because gooseberry bushes have shallow root systems, mulch them with compost rather than cultivating the soil at their base.

The key to gooseberry success is location, location, location. Choose a spot with good morning exposure and a little afternoon shade, especially in southern locations. More importantly, plant gooseberry bushes in a spot with good airflow. This goes a long way to preventing mildew and other diseases.

Left to grow naturally, gooseberries form a thicket of multiple stems. They can easily be pruned into one of three forms: an open multistem “stool,” a bush with a short main trunk, or a standard bush with a tall main trunk. Whichever form you choose, maintain four to six branches each of 1- to 4-year-old wood, cutting out anything older in late winter.

Gooseberries bloom early in spring, and the fruits color up by late June, just as the strawberries finish. At this point, they are ready to harvest for culinary purposes. Dessert berries need another week or so of ripening on the bush to develop their peak flavors. The best way to determine ripeness is by occasionally sampling berries as you pass the bush.

There are two ways to harvest gooseberries, thanks to their thorns. Safely picking gooseberries requires patience – and leather gloves. Wearing gloves, hold a branch securely by its end with one hand and strip the berries off into a waiting container with the other. This method is fast and effective, but also indiscriminate, filling the bowl with unripe berries and stripped leaves. It’s best suited to harvesting culinary berries.

Dessert berries, fully ripe and tender, deserve to be picked one at a time. This takes patience, but it allows you to be selective, picking berries at the peak of ripeness and avoiding unripe or overripe berries.

Varieties to note

Because you will probably never find gooseberries offered at the local supermarket, or even orchard stand, you will most likely need to grow a variety to sample it, as with most antique fruits. Considering that level of commitment, select your varieties carefully. Do not settle for whatever the local nursery offers. If they offer any gooseberry at all, it will most likely be Pixwell; you may find it enjoyable, but a more miserable berry I can’t imagine. Instead, trade or beg a cutting or rooted start of a friend’s favorite variety, or search online for one of the following varieties.

Amish is heavy bearing, often producing smooth 1⁄2-inch teardrop- or pear-shaped burgundy berries that are mildly sweet with a slight grainy feel to their pulp. An American berry, Amish is resistant to mildew.

Captivator bears a light crop of large, 5⁄8- to 3⁄4-inch green fruit with a rust-colored blush. The flavor is sweet with a tart finish, and the texture is juicy and crisp. Captivator is nearly thornless and mildew resistant.

Poorman bears a nice crop of smooth 1⁄2-inch, squat teardrop-shaped berries with stripes of wine and peach colors. They are relatively juicy with flavor reminiscent of sweet-tart candies, and a lingering sweetness. Poorman has few disease problems.

Red George bears round, smooth, 1⁄2-inch fruit, dusty purple with green pin striping. The flavor is sweet and tart, with a complex back flavor. A word of caution, this variety bears wickedly fine thorns, so use extreme caution when harvesting. Red George is a Ukrainian variety.

While not a pretty berry, Hoenig’s Earliest earns high marks for its sweet and rich flavor, hinting at fruit punch. The berries are small and round, 7⁄16-inch in size, green mottled with plum stippling, darkening to a charcoal underside, with a fine coat of hairs. Hoenig’s is an old variety, brought from Germany in about 1900.

Gooseberries bring delightful, easy-care fruit to northern gardens. With a little research, and a good location for the bush, you’ll be glad you adopted America’s forgotten fruit.  

The Federal government lifted its ban on gooseberries and currants in 1966. However, several states have bans of their own on the books. Some prohibit outright the planting of all Ribes species, while others require permits or restrict them in certain regions. Often, the laws remain on the books, however, most states allow home gardeners and orchardists to plant gooseberries without any restrictions.

The following states do not allow the planting of Ribes members anywhere: New Hampshire and North Carolina. Delaware requires a permit for gooseberries. Maine and West Virginia prohibit gooseberries in some counties but not others. Massachusetts requires a permit, and restricts planting by municipality, as does Rhode Island. New Jersey restricts gooseberry planting by municipality, but does not require a permit. All other states allow gooseberries to be planted with no restrictions. This does not necessarily include currants.

When in doubt, contact your state department of agriculture before planting a gooseberry bush.

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a member of Backyard Fruit Growers, where he networks with other fruit enthusiasts, sharing tips, techniques, and unusual varieties of tree fruit and berries. His gooseberry collection contains 14 varieties, and he continues to search for his newest favorite berry.

  • Published on Apr 5, 2016
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