Ribes: Reintroducing a once common fruit genus

Captivator gooseberries
Captivator gooseberries

The following are general characteristics common to all Ribes species.

Cultivars tested:

Various (see individual Ribes entries below)

Description and site preference

Type and size – bush, 3-6 feet high and wide
Hardiness zone – 3-8
Exposure – sun and partial shade
Soil – cool and moist, rich clay loam, pH 6.0-7.5
Drainage – well-drained

Economic factors

Jhonkeer red currants
Jhonkeer red currants

Years to harvest – 1-2
Maintenance – high for good production (pruning, mulching, fertilizing)
Life of planting – up to 30 years
Machine harvest potential – very good
Suitable markets – fresh and processed

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – varies by species, but all considered good source of vitamin C
Adaptability – likes cool and moist conditions
Pest issues – depends on species and cultivar (mildew, leaf spot, white pine blister rust)
Invasive potential – none
Environmental benefits – good to excellent insectary plants

European black currant
Ben Lomand European black currants

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high as a hedgerow planting
Shared equipment – high, can share most equipment
Shared processing – high, similar to many other small fruits
Co-marketing – intermediate

Integration potential – very good

All commercially significant ribes are shrubs and bushes that can be planted in hedgerows for mechanical harvesting, making them good companion crops in an integrated system with fruit that can be managed in a similar manner.

Ribes at Carandale Farm

Many selections of the Ribes genus are being observed in the Carandale test plot to determine what cultivars might best meet criteria for re-introduction as ecologically and economically sustainable commercial fruit crops.

Identifying scientific names in this genus is confusing due to interbreeding within and among species. For simplicity, cultivar descriptions will be divided into seven categories.

American Black Currant or Clove Currant (Ribes odoratum)
European Black Currant (Ribes nigrum)
Jostaberry (Ribes nidigrolaria)
Red Currant (Ribes supp.)
Pink Currant (Ribes supp.)
White Currant (Ribes supp.)
Gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum x R. uva-crispa)

History and background

Unlike most other fruiting plants, ribes are late succession plants that tolerate and fruit well in partial shade. They will also grow and produce some fruit in full shade.

Ribes have enjoyed popularity in Europe for centuries. They were also popular in North America until they became the “forbidden fruit” when the federal government imposed restrictions on growing them in the 1920s because of their implication in the spread of white pine blister rust (WPBR). Breeding and selection of superior cultivars virtually stopped in North America. New cultivars continued to be developed in other parts of the world (primarily northern Europe and Russia), but they were not selected for North American disease issues and growing conditions.

The federal ban against ribes was lifted in 1966. Wisconsin lifted its ban shortly thereafter. In some areas of the country, state and local bans continue.

There is a lot of time to make up in terms of plant breeding and selection. Plant breeding efforts in Russia have resulted in a number of high quality ribes selections resistant to white pine blister rust. Swedish and Russian plant breeders have also made improvements in fruit quality. With good genetic material to work with, it probably won’t take American breeders long to introduce high quality selections specifically suited to tolerate North American strains of mildew and leaf spot, which are probably the greatest obstacles for sustainable production of ribes in the U.S.

The temperate regions of North America have the soils and climate suitable for ribes production. With dessert quality cultivars and emerging information about nutrition, ribes have the potential to become a major horticultural crop in much of North America.

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