Sunday, June 21, 2009

Currants - Red, White and Black

Growing up in Wisconsin, the house we moved into when I was 10 years old had an established 30 foot row of red currants. My mother prized those bushes and made a fabulous clear red jelly out of the berries. She also canned a juice concentrate that was used to make a beverage we called saft in Swedish, the language that wove in and out of my childhood along with English.

In later years she obtained some black currants and the ones that grow in my yard are cuttings started from those very plants. Currants and the other members of the ribes plant family, like gooseberries, have an interesting history that partially explains why they seldom cultivated these days.

Ribes, and black currants in particular, play a part in the transmission of white pine blister disease. White pine blister disease is the most destructive disease of 5 needle pines which includes pine varieties that have economic importance for the lumber industry. It is caused by a heteroecious, macrocyclic fungus that requires 2 different host plants and 5 different spore stages to complete it's life cycle.

Early blister rust control efforts considered the alternate host, currants and gooseberries, to be the weak link in the infection cycle and an extensive and costly eradication program was conducted in the white pine regions of the United States from 1916 to 1967. Ultimately it failed. Cultivated stands of black currants were eliminated, but wild gooseberries could not be so easily controlled and other species of wild plants were found to serve as alternate hosts. Now the focus is on developing disease resistant strains of pines.

In those years between 1916 and 1967, people lost a familiarity with the tastes and flavors of currants. My mother's European background was an advantage in knowing what to do with the bounty that her long row of currants provided.

Black currants are the nutritional superstar of the ribes family with exceptionally high levels of antioxidants, vitamin C and potassium. One statement that has always stuck with me is a description uttered by my maternal grandmother Sophia. She said that black currants tasted like bed bugs smelled. A factoid that I am very glad, at least at this time, to be unable to verify.

White currants are probably the least known and cultivated of these three. Their flavor is for me, the most subtle. There is the slightly tart skin that yields easily to your teeth, revealing a burst of sweet nectar from the flesh and a distinctive floral fragrance.

While the currant berries hold for a good interval on the plant, they ship poorly and must be harvested by hand, so if you don't grow them yourself, the only place you are likely to find them is at the Farmer's Market. They are fairly easy to grow, so if you do not live in a state that continues to restrict their cultivation, they are a very worthwhile addition to your home landscape.


1 comment:

  1. yummm, these pictures and your words paint a delicious picture. I'm going to look for the white ones at my Farmer's Market. Thanks for commenting on my blog about Artfest. You reminded me that I still need to post about the imaginary creatures. I'll get right on it.