Currant Plant: Rising Currant Bushes

Jams, jellies, sorbets, cordials, syrups, fruit salads, cakes, and crumbles, the list of how to use your currant harvest is endless!  With four different colors to choose from, each with its own unique flavor and use in the kitchen, it’s easy to see why gardeners love to grow the currant plant. 

Pink and white currants look like delicate jewels hanging in huge bunches and are deliciously sweet eaten fresh from the bush. Red currants, and especially black currants, are tart and require a little sugar to enhance their intense flavor. 

Not only do these little berries taste great, but they also pack a nutritional punch. They are high in vitamin C with one 80g serving equivalent to 200% of your RDA (recommended daily allowance).  They are also high in phosphorous, iron, antioxidants, fiber, and protein, plus almost fat-free.

Currants were once referred to as the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the US.  They were banned in the early 1900s due to the risk of commercial growers spreading a blister rust disease, fatal to white pine trees used in the logging industry.  The nationwide ban was lifted in the 1960s, and the decision was passed to individual states.  It’s still illegal to grow them in some states, so best to double-check your location.

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Quick Care Guide

Black currantsBlack currants. Source: CAJC In The PNW

Common Name(s) European black currant, cassis, red currant, white/pink currant
Scientific Name Ribes nigrum, Ribes rubrum, Ribes sativum
Days to Harvest From seed, 2-3 yrs, cuttings 1-2yrs
Light Full sun to partial shade
Water Regular watering
Soil Well drained, moisture retentive
Fertilizer Balanced fertilizer
Pests Aphids, spider mites
Diseases Powdery mildew, white pine blister rust

All About The Currant Plant

Unripe currantsUnripe currants form at the base of flowers and are green like these. Source: kahvikisu

Currants come from the botanical family Grossulariaceae and the genus Ribes.  There are three main species: R. nigrum (black currant), Ribes rubrum (red currant), and Ribes sativum, white and pink currants which are albino selections from red currant bushes and are less acidic.  They are deciduous shrubs originating in woodland and scrub habitats in northern temperate regions across the globe.

All Ribes species have similar growth habits and appearance with slight variations with different cultivars.  They are closely related to the gooseberry bush, which has a similar growth habit. They tend to grow to medium-sized shrubs approximately 3-5ft (1-1.5m) high and across with an upright growth habit.  Buds appear in late spring followed by mid-green leaves which alternate with a palmate appearance of 5 lobes and serrated margins.  Stems are brown and woody when old.  New growth is green and flexible fading to light brown and woody appearance after one year.

Tumbling racemes of small green/brown or green/white flowers develop among maple-like leaves in late spring, opening into long clusters of cream or red/brown flowers, depending on the variety. Black currant leaves are a bit rounder than white, pink, or red currants. The majority of currant varieties are self-fertile, so flowers don’t last long and soon swell to produce berries that are small, round, and green.  You only need one plant to produce berries. Black currants quickly blush a dusky red in late spring, finally deepening to produce purple/black berries around ½ inch in diameter. 

Red currants, pink currants, and white currants also start off green and change to their final pearlescent color as they swell. Berries are ready to harvest from mid to late summer and are the only part of the plant which is normally consumed.  The best fruit is produced two and three-year-old wood so it may take a year or two before you yield good harvests from a new plant. 

Currant shrubs lose their leaves in late fall and go into a state of dormancy.  This is the best time to prune and propagate.  Pruning is an important element of growing to maintain good health and high yields – but more on this later.  Some popular and widely grown varieties to look out for are:

  • Black currant – ‘Titania’ – Heavy producer of good quality large berries. Resistant to blister rust and powdery mildew.
  • Pink currants – ‘Pink Champagne’ – Excellent flavor and good highly resistant to disease.
  • White currants – ‘White Imperial’ – Good, sweet flavor and resistant to powdery mildew.
  • Red currants – ‘Honeyqueen’ – Harvests of this red currant occur over a long period and have great flavor. Another stunning cultivar is the Red Lake variety. 

Planting Currant Bushes

Bare root currants should be planted in autumn. Soak the root ball in water for a few hours in advance of planting to rehydrate.  New plants, like potted currant shrubs, can be planted at any time of year in the home garden but suffer least from transplant shock if planted in autumn while dormant.

Choose a location for your plant in full sun to partial shade.  Currants grown in warmer climates will benefit from shade in hot weather.  Soil should be rich, well-drained, and moisture retentive.  Amend the planting hole with lots of organic matter to give them a good start.  They grow best in the ground but can be grown in large, deep, heavy containers that won’t blow over as they get bigger. If growing in containers, ensure you water and feed regularly.

Currants can be planted slightly deeper than their nursery pot.  This helps their shallow roots anchor into the ground ready to support all that heavy fruit.  Prepare a hole twice as wide as the root ball adding lots of fresh organic matter. With the root ball in position backfill with soil, firm in, and top with lots of mulch to help retain moisture and keep weeds at bay.  Keep the soil moist until they are established. Provide a cane for extra support if growing in an exposed site. They should be spaced 4-5 feet apart.

Caring For Currant Plants

Red currantsRed currants are a bit tart but make amazing jams and jellies. Source: MikoFox

A currant plant is easy to care for once you know how.  Read on for advice on keeping your plants in tip-top condition.

Sun and Temperature

A plant will produce more fruit if grown in full sun but will also tolerate part shade. Currants prefer cooler conditions and grow best in USDA zones 3-5 so some afternoon shade will be a welcome respite to those grown in warm climates.  Intense sunlight and temperatures above 85ºF (29ºC) may cause leaves to drop. A thick mulch around the base of the plant helps to retain moisture and keep the root ball cool. Currants are extremely hardy and do not require any frost protection unless a late frost is forecast while your plants have flower buds.  Floating row covers should give you some short-term protection until all risk of frost has passed.

Water and Humidity

Water them regularly from early spring right through to harvesting to keep the soil moist but not wet. Morning irrigation is best to rehydrate plants ready for the day ahead, using either a soaker hose or by hand using watering cans.  Direct water at the soil and not the leaves to ensure the moisture reaches the roots.  Lack of water during the summer can cause plants to develop powdery mildew so keep your watering regime consistent.  After harvesting watering can be reduced and isn’t necessary over winter into late winter.

Soil

This berry plant likes to grow in moisture retentive, well-drained soil amended with lots of organic matter like composted manure.  They are not fussy on soil type but will grow best in loam on the slightly acid side with a pH preference of 5.5 to neutral.

Fertilizing

A deep mulch of compost or leaf mold in spring will add nutrients and keep the soil moist and cool.  Use a balanced fertilizer to feed your berry bushes every few weeks in spring to boost fruit production.  Too much nitrogen can encourage a lot of new shoots of leafy growth and disease.

Pruning & Training

Proper pruning of the plant is essential to maintain good plant health and high yields.  Fruit is produced on 1-year-old wood and older, although 2 and 3-year-old wood produces the most. The aim is to grow strong stems that can support the weight of the fruit.  Pruning should be carried out when plants are dormant in winter or early spring.

Prune newly planted young berry bushes back to an inch or two above soil level and just above a leaf node.  This may seem drastic, delaying fruit production by a year, but it will help your plant to develop a strong root system and an open structure. Newly planted older stock should be cut back by half to avoid wind rock and root damage over the winter months.

A light prune in the first 3 years to maintain shape and cut out any damage is perfect to kick start fruit production. Older bushes should be pruned back by a quarter to a third of the plant removing any damaged, diseased, diagonal, or dead branches.  As plants age remove any stems that are 4 years or older and those that aren’t producing back to the base.  Make cuts above an outward-facing leaf node or bud to maintain that open airy, structure.

Plants can be trained to grow as a lollipop standard or as a fan shape against a wall.  Both training styles work best starting with young plants that can be manipulated to fit the shape you wish ta o grow.  

Propagation

Much like other fruit trees, propagate currant shrubs from seed and hardwood cuttings.  Plants grown from seed should produce fruit in 2 to 3 years whereas plants from cuttings produce fruit in year two.

Separate the seed from the pulp of your harvested summer berries and leave to dry.  Seeds require a period of cold stratification to germinate successfully so in early fall wrap seeds in some moist compost or sphagnum moss placed into a tub with holes to allow air circulation and place the tub in the fridge or outside away from direct sunlight for around three months.  Sow the stratified seed individually into 3in (9cm) pots filled with fresh compost around 6-8 weeks before the last frost.  Keep the compost moist and set it into a cold frame or cold greenhouse until after the last frost date. 

Take hardwood cuttings from 1-year-old wood in late fall,10-12 inches long.  Dip the pointed cut end in rooting hormone and stick the cuttings into a tall pot filled with compost until just an inch or two of stem is visible at the top.  Place pots outside somewhere sheltered and shaded from direct sunlight.  Cuttings can also be planted directly outside in trenches amended with lots of good organic matter and firmed in.  Leaves will sprout on cuttings in spring and summer but will not be ready for planting into their final location until strong roots have developed.  This can take around 6 months. 

Harvesting and Storing

White currantsWhite currants range from ivory to pink in hue. Source: Sarah Deforche

Harvesting and storing fruits for future use is the best part of growing this berry.  Follow our tips below to find out how to make the most of your harvests.

Harvesting Currant Plants

Most currants are ready to harvest from early summer onwards.  Black and red currants will be big and juicy and have intense red or purple/black color when ripe for picking. The best way to test if your white and pink currants are ripe is to taste and/or squeeze.  If the pink and white berries taste sweet, have adequate juice, and are soft then they are ready. 

To harvest snip bunches of berries together from the main petiole attached to the stem rather than pulling.  Pulling can damage the berries and break stems. Some light pruning can be carried out during harvest to remove any broken or diseased branches.  Wash berries and consume them as soon as possible for optimum freshness.

Storing

Those for fresh eating will store in the fridge for a few days after harvest but are best consumed as soon as possible.  Berries can be stored in the freezer in bags for up to 6 months.  Berries can also be dehydrated to make dried currants. Dried currants can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 6 to 12 months.  Probably the most popular way to ‘store’ black currants is to make them into jellies, syrups, and cordials from fresh.

Troubleshooting the Currant Plant

Currant leavesCurrant leaves can look similar to raspberry leaves. Source: naturalflow

There are several growing issues to look out for when growing currants.  We have listed a few below to help you on your currant growing journey.

Growing Problems

Currant bushes can grow quite dense making them susceptible to wind rock and too much moisture getting into the roots causing rot. Wind can also damage older stems if not pruned regularly. Pruning to thin the canopy will help reduce wind rock and cutting out older stems each year will reduce breakage and the potential for disease to establish.  Provide stakes to support unstable bushes until it’s time to prune out the excess weight.

Pests

New growth can become infested by aphids in spring which feed on the sap and distort the growth of leaves and shoots.  Companion planting with marigolds or calendula will help deter aphids and encourage beneficial insects into the garden to feed on them.   Alternatively, spray with an organic insecticidal soap or neem oil.  Squishing aphids with fingers or a quick blast of water can also help to reduce numbers. 

Other insects like spider mites (Tetranychidae) are tiny reddish brown arachnids that live in large colonies on the underside of leaves. Evidence on plants can be seen as a fine webbing between stems and a rapid decline in plant health. Avoid spraying with pesticides as spider mites have built up a resistance to many products on the market. Chemicals can also kill natural predators such as lacewings and ladybugs.  Remove and destroy the worst affected stems to prevent further spread. 

Currant Plant Diseases

Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that can affect currant bushes during the summer months, especially if experiencing drought.  It grows as thick white dust on leaves, inhibiting photosynthesis and hindering growth.  Foliage eventually turns yellow and dies.  Maintain good garden hygiene, removing infected foliage to prevent the disease from spreading and reinfection in subsequent years.  Provide adequate space between plants to promote good air circulation. Mulch the roots to keep them cool and hydrated. Spray with an organic sulfur fungicide, lime sulfur, neem oil, or potassium bicarbonate, prior to or at first sight of disease. 

White pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) is a disease that affects all plants in the Ribes genus, causing yellow rust spots on the upper side of leaves and blistering yellow fruiting bodies on the underside.  Fruit production is not usually affected. However, the disease can be fatal to white pine trees with the potential to devastate whole forests.  Fungicides have little effect on the disease so affected plants should be removed and burned. Choose government-approved disease-resistant currant varieties to grow in your garden.

Frequently Asked Questions

Currant plantThe currant plant is a fruiting shrub well worth growing. Source: melolou

Q: Why are currants illegal to grow in the US?

A: Currant plants are susceptible to a blister rust disease that threatens the white pine tree used in the logging industry.  Until the 1960s, there was a nationwide ban on growing them, but this ban has been lifted, and individual states can decide if they can be grown or not. 

Q: Are currants illegal to grow?

A: Some US states may ban the growing of currants due to the risk of blister rust disease.  

Q: Can you eat a currant?

A: Yes, you can eat white and pink currants straight from the bush, but you may wish to add something sweet to black or red currants to make them less tart.

Q: How big does a currant bush get?

A: An average currant bushes will grow to 3-5ft (1-1.5m) high and across.

Q: What are currants good for?

A: Currants can be used to make sweet treats like jams, jellies, and cakes. Currant berries have a high vitamin C content and lots of other nutrients, so they are also good for your health.

Q: Are currants invasive?

A: Currant plants are not invasive.

Q: Is a raisin a currant?

A: Black currants are often confused with raisins; however, raisins are dried grapes.

Q: Do currants taste like raisins?

A:  They don’t taste like raisins.  Black and red currants are tarts and although white and pink currants are sweet, they have a fresh fruity flavor.

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