Currants an excellent Alaska fruit for jellies, juice and syrup
This past week, I harvested my black and red currants and made them into juice and jelly and syrup to enjoy throughout the winter months. An excellent fruit to grow and relatively trouble free, the currant is a nutritional powerhouse. Currants have a wonderful tart flavor and according to the USDA have more vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium than any other fruit. These berries are only second to elderberries in iron and protein content and lower in fat than any other fruit except nectarines.
Currants are a deciduous shrub growing upright and spreading 3 feet high and up to 7 feet wide. They come in red, black, pink or creamy white. The pink and creamy white currants have a more delicate taste and the black currant has the most intense flavor.
The Alaska State Fair has a berry section that will show you the different currants grown locally in the crops department in the barn. The different types of currants are all called Ribes, which is the genus and represented at the beginning of the botanical name as an R. Several of the species are hybrids. The black currants are R americanum (American black currant), R nigrum (European black currant) and R. odoratum (buffalo currant). The black currants are used for preserves, juices and wine making. The red and white currants are from R. rubrum, (red currant, and R. sativum (common currant) and R petraeum and their hybrids. The red currants are used for their intense color and jellies and juices.
To plant currants you will need well-drained soil and plenty of organic mulch. Currants prefer full sun, but can tolerate some shade during the day. A pH of 5.5-7.0 is preferred. The cool conditions of Alaska are perfect for currants and their hardiness zones are 3-5. Water regularly and extra mulch keeps the soil moist and cool. Water in the morning and keep the water off the leaves to prevent mildew. Space the plants about five feet apart so they are grow unimpeded. These bushes can get good size so plan ahead. Spacing allows for air movement around the plants and discourages mild and other diseases. Currants are shallow rooted plants so avoid cultivating the soil around the plant as to not disturb the roots. A good all-around fertilizer, 20-20-20, is good to place away from the trunk and out toward the drip line of the plant once a year in the spring.
Pruning is very important and should be done yearly. The plant’s best fruit is produced on young wood and so any old wood should be pruned back to 2 inches off the ground. Prune any dead, diseased or deranged branches and make the cuts facing outward, encouraging the new bud to grow out. Note that the black currant grows with multi stems whereas the red currant has one main stem.
The imported currant worm (Nematis ribesii) is the most serious insect pest of currants. The foliage is consumed by these worm larvae it seems just overnight. The adults are sawflies about the size of a housefly.
The adult sawflies (Janus integer) make numerous punctures in canes during egg laying in spring, resulting in drooping and wilting of new shoots in late spring. It is shocking how fast these little buggers can strip the leaves. The best practice is to be on the lookout just after the leaves emerge in the spring and dust the plant with rotenone early.
Harvesting is done by pulling off the entire cluster of berries and not each individual fruit. Currants do not keep for very long so put up the fruit right away or freeze it for later use. Although you can eat the fruit fresh, I prefer it cooked into jelly, jams and strained fruit juice and syrups. Talk about delicious! I am so glad to have planted these bushes and look forward to the fruit production every year. I hope you will look for the currants exhibit at the fair and that you will try growing these delectable berries in your garden. Enjoy our sunshine and gardening.
Chris Wood is a certified master gardener and president of the Greater Eagle River Garden Club. Write to her at [email protected].