Currant (Ribes species)
Other Names: gooseberry, dog bramble; bristly black currant (Ribes lacustre); stink currant (Ribes bracteosum); skunk currant (Ribes glandulosum); trailing black currant (Ribes laxifolium); northern red currant (Ribes triste); northern black currant (Ribes hudsonianum); golden currant (Ribes aureum); flowering red currant (Ribes sanguineum).
Saxifrage Family: (Saxifragaceae).
Habitat and Family: Moist woods, open areas, stream banks, meadows, roadsides, and logged areas are prime habitat for currants. Numerous Ribes species are distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest. Species noted for exceptional flavor include northern red currant, Ribes triste (northern Alaska and the Yukon to Oregon); golden currant, Ribes aureum (south-central British Columbia to California), and flowering red currant, Ribes sanguineum (southern British Columbia to California).
Physical Description: Currant: Ribes species: a: grows 1 to 6 feet high; b: leaves have 3 to 7 lobes, foliage has a strong scent; c: flowers vary with species from upright to drooping clusters (racemes); flowers may be white, pinkish or greenish; d: Ribes fruits may be prickly or smooth, depending on species; e: northern red currants, Ribes triste, have smooth, bright red fruits and stems that lack prickles. Stem bark shreds easily. This species is considered choice in Alaska.
Ribes: Strong–Scented Shrubs with Friendly Fruits: The nicknames stink currant (Ribes bracteosum) and skunk currant (Ribes glandulosum) don’t make currants sound especially appetizing. Botanist Boyd Shaffer, however, compares them to Limburger cheese. Despite the odor of the foliage, the fruits are well worth incorporating into preserves and pies. Those with more ‘delicate’ sensitivities might prefer the select fruits of northern, red, golden, or flowering red currants.
Harvest Calendar: Spring to summer: leaves. Mid-to-late summer: fruits. Fruits are best for preserves when slightly underripe.
Food Use: Currant fruits may be nibbled raw as a trail snack or cooked as breakfast topping for cereal or hotcakes. Many foragers like blending currants with sweeter berries in pies, alcoholic brews, and fruit leather rollies. For fowl or lamb, currant–mint jelly is a memorable accompaniment. Currants, blended with raspberries, apples, or rose hips also make unique preserves. A report in Foxfire 3 says spiced currants are traditionally served with roast turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Ribes leaves may be added to herbal tea blends, and/or used to flavor black tea. Make certain leaves are fresh or thoroughly dried, not wilted. CAUTION: Toxins are present in many leaves while in the wilted state.
MEDICINAL USE: According to the Soviet trade union journal Trud, “Moscow’s Institute of Biological Physics has shown the acid in unripe gooseberries can prevent disintegration of body cells, which causes illness and old age.” Ribes are traditionally recommended for convalescents. Fruits are extremely high in vitamin C and are one of the richest plant sources of copper. Currants are often recommended as an appetite stimulant for those ‘off their feed.’
The Herb Book recommends currant leaf tea for rheumatic problems and arteriosclerosis, and dried berry tea as a gargle for mouth inflammation and sore throat. Other home remedies include eating whole currant fruits to regulate the bowels, applying currant jelly on burns, sipping currant syrup for whooping cough and colds, and drinking diluted currant juice for upset stomach and cramps.
Dena’ina Athabascans boil the peeled stems of the red currant (Ribes triste) in water. The tea is used internally for colds, flu, and tuberculosis, and externally as an eye wash.
Historical Use: Currant leaves, flowers, and berries were staples in various native groups. Food Plants of British Columbia Indians reports that berries were dipped in grease and salmon roe, and then pressed into cakes and dried. At feasts, it was believed you’d be smitten with bad luck if you didn’t consume your entire portion of currants.
Western pioneers and explorers often blended the fruits with meat and hot fat. Europeans once avoided eating Ribes as they believed the fruits encouraged the growth of intestinal worms. Later, currants were prized for their ability to cure rheumatism, gout, and kidney complaints. During World War II, the British extensively cultivated black currants; the vitamin C–rich fruits were used to nourish infants and children.
The botanical name Ribes stems from the Arabic “ribas”, meaning ‘a plant.’ “Currant” is a corruption of Corinth, the place where a fruit similar in appearance to the wild Ribes thrived. Gooseberry is another common name for currants that are bristly rather than smooth; some botanists list such plants in a separate genus.
Other: There are about eighty Ribes species in North America. In regions where white pine is important, currant growing has been restricted by law since Ribes are an alternate host of the white–pine blister rust. The Canadian government, as well as American horticulturists, have been developing pine varieties immune to this disease; hence currant cultivation is again becoming popular.