When most people think about growing their own berries, the usual suspects come to mind: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. But suppose you’re looking for something different, something special, something a little more — refined? What berry conjures up visions of English teatime with biscuits and jam, or French cuisine with exquisite sauces and garnishes; proper place settings and etiquette, and maybe even restaurants with Michelin stars? What berry can bring posh distinction to your garden or orchard, and make it more sophisticated and more provincial all at once?
That would be the currant. Currants are beautiful little berries from Europe, closely related to gooseberries. There are a few American currant species, but they’re rarely cultivated, so I’ll focus on European black, red, and white currants. Species names get a bit complicated, thanks to extensive hybridization, but black currants are typically members of Ribes nigrum and R. ussuriense, while red and white currants belong to R. rubrum, R. petraeum, and R. sativum. Pink currants are hybrids of red and white currants, and may be found under any of their parents’ names. None of these are the dried fruit called Zante currants, which are small raisins made from the ‘Black Corinth’ grape.
Meet the Currant Favorites
Fresh currants are not for the faint of heart. Black currants are often described as “resinous” and complex — not a berry for casually popping in your mouth, although some people do. Red and white currants lack the resinous flavor, but they’re just as intense, with a tart, “sprightly” flavor. All owe their punch to generous amounts of vitamin C.
So if you’re not one for eating tart fruit out of hand, why should you grow currants? Much as with wine grapes, the magic happens when you do something with the fruit. Currants’ intense, complex flavors make for incredible baked goods (try our Currant Scone Recipe), desserts, and even wine (see Eva Blouch’s Currant Wine Recipe). Currants are practically custom-built for making preserves, with their high vitamin C levels and natural pectin, and their complex flavor profile. No other jelly can quite compare to the sparkling beauty of red currant jelly, and black currant jam with biscuits and tea tastes exquisite. Currant sauces often pair well with strongly flavored meats, such as lamb and wild game. The gem-like berries can even add beauty to the presentation of the plate when used as an elegant garnish.
Currant bushes have an informal, modest growth habit that fits well in a kitchen garden. They send up multiple arching suckers from ground level, reaching 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. Currants neither bear thorns like their gooseberry cousins, nor sprawl across the garden like brambles do. The leaves are about 1-1/2 to 2 inches across, and look like miniature maple leaves. The bushes produce lacy, dangling clusters of small blooms, which are called “strigs.” When the strigs fill with berries, they resemble miniature grape clusters, especially on red and white currants. Black currants have fewer berries on each strig. Red and white currants are pea-sized, and are translucent and jewel-like, ranging from bright ruby red through baby pink to an opalescent cream so translucent that the seeds are clearly visible. Black currants are a bit larger, up to 3/8-inch diameter, and glossy blue-black.
In the garden, currants are undemanding. They grow well in Zones 3 through 7, with black currants stretching north into Zone 2. They don’t do well in the Deep South or Southwest, suffering and dropping their fruit when temperatures surpass 95 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a few days. At high temperatures and in strong sunlight, currant leaves can burn, so the plants will appreciate afternoon shade or northern exposure. You can plant them anywhere they’ll receive high, dappled shade, especially in the afternoon. As a general rule of thumb, wherever apples grow well, currants should also thrive.
Currants prefer sandy loam or clay loam soils with at least 1 percent organic material. Regular mulching with finished compost easily supplies that, with the added benefit of suppressing weeds without risking damaging the roots with cultivation, and keeping the soil cool and moist. Avoid planting in soggy locations, especially where standing water occasionally occurs. If no other options are available, consider using raised beds or underground drainage tiles. Currants prefer moderately acidic soil, with pH levels from 5.5 to 6.5. Planting in soils above a pH of 7 can result in micronutrient deficiencies. Keep airflow in mind when selecting the site for your currant bush. Good airflow goes a long way toward preventing foliar diseases, such as powdery mildew.
You can find currants in nursery catalogs, online, or, occasionally, in brick-and-mortar nurseries. You’re also likely to find a lot of legal-sounding language discussing whether or not your state allows currants. That has to do with a fungal disease called white pine blister rust, which can devastate white pine lumber crops. The fungus has two distinct life stages, one growing on white pines, and the other on black currants (Ribes nigrum). At one time, all Ribes were suspect, including the entire currant family and gooseberries, and a federal ban was instituted, along with several state bans, to protect the national white pine industry. The federal ban was lifted in 1966. Many state bans are still on the books, but few are enforced; contact your county extension office to clarify the laws in your area. For example, Pennsylvania still has a Ribes ban, but it’s no longer enforced, as long as you plant resistant cultivars, such as ‘Crusader,’ ‘Consort,’ or ‘Ben Sarek.’
Currant plants can also be rooted from cuttings, if you know someone who grows them. Take 12-inch-long cuttings of first-year wood from dormant bushes in late winter to early spring. Bury each cutting upright in a protected spot with good drainage, leaving only the top 3 to 4 inches aboveground, and leave them alone for a season. Carefully hand pull any weeds that spring up in the bed; otherwise the cuttings shouldn’t need any care as they root. You can expect about a 50 percent success rate, so take twice as many cuttings as you think you need.
Another way to produce more currant bushes is to layer existing bushes. Select a branch that arches low to the ground, and bury a section of it to strike roots. Once it strikes roots, it can be severed from the parent bush and transplanted. If you layer in early spring, the new plant will be ready to move early the following spring. You may even find that the bush has naturally layered itself, with a new plant ready to be moved immediately.
Planting and Cultivation
Early spring is the best time to plant your new currant bushes, as soon as the soil will allow digging. Snow or late frosts won’t bother new growth. Avoid planting currants very deep or very shallow. Keep them well-watered the first season, but don’t let their feet get soggy. Provide a thick, organic mulch, a few inches away from the stems.
Currants fruit best on 1- to 3-year-old wood. Older wood tends to become “blind,” and refuses to fruit. Prune in late winter to early spring, before the buds break, and remove any dead, diseased, or damaged branches first. Cut any wood older than 3 years as close to the ground as possible, with clean, sharp bypass pruning shears. At the same time, remove crowded wood to allow for good airflow. Aim for 3 to 4 shoots each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old wood. Prune each remaining shoot back by about a foot, to encourage branching and to provide cuttings for new bushes if you want them.
Currants are among the earliest bushes to bloom in the spring, and the fruits ripen in early to mid-July, creating the perfect bridge between early-ripening raspberries and later summer fruits. Although they’re considered self-fruitful, planting several currant varieties will increase fruit set.
For the best preserves, harvest currants just as they reach full color, when pectin content is highest. For sweeter flavor, they can hang on the bush for a few days. If birds are a threat, use row covers to protect the berries. Harvest currants by the strig; don’t pick individual berries. Later, you can use a fork to “comb” the ripe berries into a bowl. Currants can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator, but should be frozen for longer storage.
Currants have few pests or diseases, although powdery mildew, anthracnose, and leaf spot may cause leaf drop. Maintain good airflow, and remove and destroy fallen leaves promptly to prevent and control disease. Apply lime-sulfur spray just as the buds begin to break to help with controlling powdery mildew. Scale insects can also weaken plants. Control them with a dormant oil spray in late winter. Aphids rarely cause serious damage. Currant sawflies (or imported currant worms) may strip your bushes of leaves, but they can be controlled by handpicking.
Currants bring distinctive flavor to your garden, and your kitchen, without asking much in return. All they need is good air, afternoon shade, compost, and a haircut, and they’ll thank you with jeweled berries perfect for all sorts of culinary delights. Give them a chance, and you just may find yourself involved in a “currant affair.”
Decorative Pruning Schemes
If you prefer a more manicured look to your currants, they can easily be trained to a standard or tree form. When you plant a new currant, cut off all but the healthiest, strongest-looking shoot at ground level. Prune the remaining shoot back to 8 to 12 inches in height, and stake it vertically. As it grows, trim off all side shoots. The following spring, cut it back to about 8 to 12 inches of new growth, and continue removing side shoots. After another year or two of this treatment, it should be about 3 feet tall. Allow the top side shoots to develop into a “treetop” effect. Keep the trunk below clear of side shoots, and prune the top for good airflow and to remove old, dead, or diseased branches.
For an even more striking form, plant currants along a garden fence, and train them into an espaliered form. Plant a currant at each fence post and train it up the post much as you would for a standard. When it reaches the top of the fence, prune it back to two branches running along the top of the fence. Keep any shoots coming off the branches short, and trim all side shoots off the trunk. As the berries ripen, they’ll resemble miniature grape clusters on a grape vine.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He’s the vice president of the Backyard Fruit Growers, a grassroots organization dedicated to helping people grow healthy fruit in their own backyards.