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What You Need To Know About Currants (Plus 3 Recipes!)

Excerpted from The Little Prairie Book of Berries.

(Illustrated by: Tree Abraham, Meryl Hulse)

In addition to black currants (Ribes americanum), northern black currants (R. hudsonianum) and prickly currants (R. lacustre) are native to the prairie provinces. Red and white currants are not native to this region, so you won’t find them in the wild. However, you’ll have no trouble finding many cultivars of all types of currants available for purchase in nurseries and garden centres to grow in your own garden. Currants are ideal for the small space garden (or to tuck into nooks and crannies in a larger garden).

They are attractive small shrubs, generally reaching a height of only 5 or 6 feet, with a similar spread. The bright green, fine-lobed leaves resemble small maple tree leaves. The leaves change to yellow or red in autumn, depending on the cultivar. Another currant of note is the clove currant (R. aureum var. villosum, sometimes listed as R. odoratum), which, despite the fact that it has delicious edible berries, is usually grown as an ornamental plant and features yellow flowers with an incredible spicy-sweet fragrance.

How to grow currants

Currants can tolerate some shade, although they will bear more fruit if offered full sun. Keep in mind, as well, that shadier, damp spots and dense foliage is a combination that can lead to the development of diseases such as powdery mildew. Currants are best planted in the spring or early autumn. Don’t wait too long to put them in the ground in the fall; you want to give the shrubs sufficient time to establish roots. Space individual shrubs approximately 1.5 metres apart. Unless you are creating a hedge, don’t force currants to sidle up too closely to other plants; offer them a site free of competition for light, space, nutrients, and water.

Currants are not drought tolerant and will require supplemental irrigation when rainfall is insufficient during the growing season. Mulching the base of the plants with clean, weed-free straw or wood chips may help conserve moisture during hot summers and offer a bit of protection from the freeze and thaw cycles that occur on the prairies in the winter.

Currants should be given a side dressing of a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost each spring. If you choose to use a synthetic fertilizer, opt for a balanced one; high nitrogen content will spur vegetative growth but isn’t likely to encourage heavy fruit production. Don’t forget to weed—and keep up with the task! It’s not fun, but your currants will thank you for it (hopefully in several pounds of gorgeous berries).

Currants may sucker if their roots are disturbed through cultivation or mechanical injury—don’t nick them with the weed trimmer! The suckers are easily cut away if unwanted. Fruit production generally begins when the currants have been in the ground for at least 2 years. Fruit is usually borne on 2- and 3-year-old wood. Carefully consider this fact when you prune and don’t take out the wrong branches. Plan for the future, as well, and don’t trim away too much of the newer wood. Wood that is older than 3 years is generally less productive and can be removed. (It is prudent to remove no more than 25 percent of the total branches in a given growing season.) The shrubs can live up to 30 years and, with proper care, remain productive the whole time.

Currants are self-fertile, so if you only want one in your garden, go for it! It will be able to produce fruit without a pollinizer. As with many fruit-bearing plants, however, having another cultivar around may result in even more favourable yields. Insects such as bees help ensure that the transfer of pollen takes place.

The nitty gritty about the fruit

Currant berries may be black, white, or red in colour and are borne on long, pendulous trusses commonly called strings. White currants are considered a variation of red currants—the only real difference between them is the colour of the berries. Red and white currants should be picked when they show even colour. (They will have a shiny, transparent look to them.)

Black currants do not have this clear appearance; they should be picked when they are uniformly black and showing no other hint of colour. If the berries begin to wrinkle, they are too ripe. If you plan to make jam or jelly, pick a few slightly underripe berries to throw in the mix—they have more pectin than the fully ripe ones and will help your preserves set.

Pick the fruit in clusters, removing the entire string at once. (I like to cut them off the plants with a pair of scissors.) The berries of red and white cultivars tend to be a bit more delicate than black currants, but all types should be carefully handled.

What do they taste like?

Currants contain small, insignificant edible seeds that lend just a slight crunch when you bite into a berry. The berries themselves are tart, and a sweetener is generally added when they are used in cooking and baking.

From The Little Prairie Book of Berries, copyright © 2021 Sheryl Normandeau. Reprinted with permission of TouchWood Editions. Out Nov. 2, 2021.

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