RIBES: Wild Currant / Gooseberry
There are about 50 species of Ribes in the United States; a good half of those are native to the Pacific Northwest, and of those, a very few are available to local gardeners. They are a varied lot; it would be possible to find a Ribes suitable for nearly every garden setting. They bloom in a variety and intensity of color and all have berries that, while largely not palatable to humans, are great bird-attracters.
Leaves range from small and gently-lobed to palm-sized that are more sharply shaped, like that of maple; one species is fragrant like cloves and one has an odor described as unpleasantly "skunky"; some have branches that are spineless, while some are aggressively prickly; a few will accept somewhat dry conditions while others will demand wetness.
Some are strikingly beautiful and shaped to warrant a prominent place in a sun-to-dappled-shade part of the garden; others are less tame, with prominent thorns, and so more suited for a wildlife garden or hedgerow, where the berries and thorns create food and protective cover for birds.
Such is the range of the native currants. If sited to their preferred conditions, they are virtually carefree. There is a lot to like about our native Ribes. Here is a sampling of some you will encounter:
Ribes aureum – Golden currant
Generous clusters of bright yellow flowers with reddish center smelling sweetly of cloves adorn this thornless Ribes in the spring, followed by purplish berries that will make fruit-eating birds happy. Upright to arching branches typically grows 3-6'. Spreads by underground runners, so give it plenty of space or be prepared to prune or contain it in some way. Can grow in partial shade, but this one is truly happier in a sunnier spot. Native east of the Cascades, it is tolerant of heat and cold, but will also thrive in the more temperate west side of the state. Can take drier conditions than some of the other Ribes, but prefers regular water.
Ribes bracteosum – Stink currant
This is the one with the foliage that, when crushed, has been compared to the odor of skunk, for better or worse. Leaves are larger, more deeply palmate in shape. Flowers are lovely small, greenish cup-shapes with flared petals and sometimes tinged with brownish purple, growing along the length of the flowering stem. Found primarily west of the Cascades in wet to boggy woodlands. Dark blue berries get a range of response as to their edibility, but birds like them. Graceful, open growth to 9' and free of thorns. A good habitat plant for the wet spot in the garden. (Photo credit to Clay Antieau).
Ribes divaricatum – Spreading gooseberry, Coastal gooseberry
This wild gooseberry is another prime candidate for moist to wet areas, useful as barriers, hedgerows or habitat plant. Can be grown in full sun to partial shade; the blue-black berries provide plentiful food for birds and the lethal pair of spines at each leaf node gives them protective cover. The flowers of R. divaricatum are especially attractive: similar to hardy fuchsia in shape, with reddish floral tube and reflexed calyx lobes. The tiny petals are white to reddish. Both you and visiting hummingbirds will find them beautiful. This shrub can grow to 6' and the berries are considered edible.
Ribes sanguineum – Red-flowering currant
This is the favorite red-flowering currant most commonly found in gardens and landscapes. Adaptable to sun and partial shade, moist to somewhat dry conditions, this thornless currant grows up to 10'. The drooping clusters of light to deep pink flowers are one of the first things to bloom here in the Pacific Northwest, happily corresponding to the time when hummingbirds are in migration to their eventual summer breeding grounds. They will happily make a stop in your garden if you have this shrub. The leaves are small, lobed and finely textured, making it attractive shrub even when out of flower. The black berries it produces are best left to the birds, who will appreciate the taste more than you will.
There are many cultivars of R. sanguineum available to gardeners: R. sanguineum 'Alba' and 'White Icicle' are white flowering forms; at the other end of the spectrum are deep rosy red-flowering varieties, like 'Elk River Red' and 'King Edward VII.'
Common Name: wild currant, wild gooseberry
Native Range: Along the west coast, both sides of the Cascades, British Columbia through California.
Characteristics: Light to medium green, lobed leaves, low-spreading or tall-upright-or-arching shrub, small flowers of white to pink to red or yellow. Some have branches with spines, some without. Fruit (mostly edible to birds, not so much-so to people) is small, round, red to blue to black.
Culture: Depending on species, Ribes can grow in full sun to part shade, wet to fairly dry conditions, though most will prefer regular water.
Pests/diseases: Occasionally has problem with aphids or rust, though uncommon. Relatively carefree.
You can also refer to our shrubs article Ribes: Flowers and Fruit for information on the currant producing varieties.