March 07, 2021

Frillman: Currant affairs

With the end of winter near, it’s time to start planning for the garden season. At the outbreak of COVID-19 last year, many people attempted to grow some of their own food, repopularizing the concept of WWII “victory gardens”. Increase your victory garden growing capacity by planting some black currant (Ribes nigrum) bushes this March!

What is a black currant, you ask? It is a woody perennial fruit-bearing shrub, native to central and northern Europe; it produces delicious, nutritious and very visually appealing berries that are similar in size and shape to blueberries, with an intense blue-black color that gives it its name. The berries grow in tantalizing clumps on the canes of the black currant bush, which ripen in June and are ready for harvest by early July in our growing area. The flavor profile of the black currant has been described as concentrated blackberry, citrus fruit, pine, black pepper, anise, herbaceous and floral. What a mix!

Most of the global black currant production occurs in European countries, both commercially and domestically. However, currant plants thrive in fertile, wet soils and prefer cool winters. They also have an established tolerance to partial shade. Given decent soil, sufficient summer irrigation, and some annual pruning, they can produce an excellent crop. These characteristics and others make them an ideal addition to the home gardens and specialty crop production fields of the Upper Midwest.

Commercial black currant products abroad are juice, jams, jellies, preserves, marinades, wines, alcohols and dyes, though for the most part they are grown for the commercial juice industry or for fresh berry eating. Be sure to do your cultivar research before planting. Some varieties are good for value-adding, while others are better for direct consumption. For example, “Consort”, very high in antioxidants and other healthy compounds, is also extremely tart and makes a good “value-added” currant, whereas “Blackcomb” is a more palatable and less tart fresh-eating currant.

It is essential to select cultivars for planting that are resistant to White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR), a fungal disease that is deadly to Eastern white pine. According to University of Minnesota Extension, the fungal spores of WPBR need to infect both a white pine and a Ribes (currant or gooseberry plant) to complete its life cycle. European migrants brought both infected white pine saplings and currants to the U.S. before 1900, and the disease began to spread. It was so detrimental to the domestic timber industry that U.S. government officials began a widespread Ribes eradication and quarantine program starting in the 1920s, and the quarantine persists today in some states outside the Midwest. However, breeders have been successful in bringing cultivars to market that are resistant to WPBR, along with other prevalent diseases, such as Anthracnose (Gloeosporidiella spp.) and Powdery Mildew (Podosphaera mors-uvae).

Consuming black currants is good for you; in fact, they are a confirmed superfood. They have more antioxidants than blueberries, more vitamin C than oranges, and they have the most zinc of any fruit or vegetable you can eat. Health food stores in our area began carrying items like K.W. Knudsen’s Just Black Currant juice in the last few years, owing to black currant’s prolific health benefits.

Black currant is becoming a popular ingredient in the craft brewing world, owing to interesting and complex flavors that can result from the fermentation of the fruit. Three central Illinois breweries (at least), as well as their customers, have some experience with this. Destihl Brewery in Bloomington, Bling Pig Brewery in Champaign, and Big Thorn Brewing in Georgetown, Illinois, have all recently brewed several beers featuring this fearless fruit; because of the acidity of black currant, all three releases have been different types of sour beer, a beer style that is growing in popularity in the U.S. craft beer scene. Several larger craft breweries throughout the U.S. feature a black currant brew, as well, and there are sure to be more economic opportunities for black currant growers and artisan makers on the horizon, such as production for fresh eating or juice.

To see what all the fuss is about, contact your local Extension office to discuss good sources of nursery stock, or be on the lookout this year for fresh berries and specialty black currant products at farmers markets.

More resources:

Around the World

White Pine Blister Rust

The Health Benefits

Nick Frillman is a University of Illinois Extension local foods systems and small farms educator.