Your holiday wines and juices may already contain black currants. But if growers and researchers are successful, American consumers will see a lot more jams, juices, and pastries made with tart-sweet currants and their cousins, the gooseberries.
Currants are black, red, or white berries native to North America and Europe. They are unrelated to the raisinlike Zante currants, made from grapes.
"Many people in North America are interested in the fruits, which are already popular in Europe," says Kim Hummer, curator for the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon. Operated by the Agricultural Research Service, the repository preserves and evaluates germplasm of currants, gooseberries, other temperate fruits, hazelnuts, hops, and mint.
The U.S. currant and gooseberry industry all but disappeared in the early part of the century, when federal legislation called for eradicating these plants in an attempt to protect pine trees. At that time, a disease called white pine blister rust had been brought into the country. The life cycle for this rust requires both pines and plants in the genus Ribes, including currants and gooseberries. It can kill white pines but normally doesn't hurt Ribes. Breezes carry the rust spores between the plants.
Disease-resistant currants and gooseberries are breathing new life into the industry. The federal law prohibiting Ribes was repealed in 1966, but 17 states still have some restrictions. Some of these states are considering changing their laws to allow the cultivation of rust-resistant Ribes.
In 1996, ARS, in collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, released Jahn's Prairie, a rust-resistant gooseberry. Growers have been propagating Jahn's Prairie plants for retail sales. Now Hummer is investigating rust resistance in currants.
"Several currant cultivars on trial at Corvallis show no signs of white pine blister rust under natural conditions," says Hummer. This fall, she'll intentionally inoculate the plants with the disease to make sure that they are resistant and haven't just avoided the rust.
Currants and gooseberries grow best in the northern United States. They can withstand temperatures as low as -40oF in winter but do not grow well where summer temperatures are very hot.--By Kathryn Barry Stelljes, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
"A Currant Treat for All Seasons" was published in the December 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.