The cultivation and consumption of currants.

All things green.
Sept. 3 2008 12:41 PM

Currant Affairs

The formerly forbidden fruit stakes out a spot in American gardens.

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The best time to plant is very early spring or fall (with plenty of mulch to prevent the soil from freezing and thawing and pushing the roots up). Currant bushes don't mind clay soil, though it's good to loosen it up with organic matter. They do object to poorly drained soil. In late winter or early spring, cut a few of the oldest stems to the ground to encourage new growth. You do need to water attentively in dry times, especially when the berries are ripening.

Currants are one of the few fruits that don't need full sun to ripen. Like blueberries, they thrive in cold climates, growing best in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, climate Zones 3-5. A lot of breeding stock comes from Russia. Lee Reich's favorite currant is "Kirovchanka." If you buy one of the disease-resistant strains, you can avoid having to spray. The whole Ribes family, which includes gooseberries, is deer resistant.

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Currants make good jam and jelly, which taste great to Americans as well as Europeans, and are the crucial ingredient in summer pudding—the particularly spectacular dessert that I plan to make next summer if my two little currant bushes cooperate. 

So go forth and grow berries, but check your local laws first: The federal restrictions on cultivating currants were lifted in 1966, but some state laws are still on the books. It's good to check with your local Cooperative Extension office about state regulations. The tale of crusader Greg Quinn, who got the ban lifted in New York state, can be found at www.currants.com.

Currants have literary connections as well as legal and social ones. Red currants figure prominently in the opening pages of the fantastic novel The Stone Diaries by the late Carol Shields. As the story begins, the main character's mother is making summer pudding, combining red currants, raspberries, and blackberries.

Tragedy follows. However, our heroine, after many trials, eventually finds happiness and fulfillment in writing a garden column. It's a believable plot line.

Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.