Plug In to the Currant Bush

Coast Black Gooseberry blossoms

Remember that camping trip with your college friends when someone asked where they could plug in their hair drier and the smart aleck in the group said, “Go plug it into the current bush.”? Then your hapless friend wandered around looking for a bush to plug into. Whether they found one is open to question.

If our friend happened to be visiting our garden this month I could point them to four different species of native currants or gooseberries. They’re all members of the genus Ribes, and there are 18 species (not counting varieties and subspecies) in Washington state. There’s some difference of opinion about the common names for these. Some we call currants and some are gooseberries, generally (but not always) based on the size of the fruit.

In the photo above we’re looking at the flowers of Coast Black Gooseberry, Ribes divaricatum. It’s also sometimes called Straggly Goosebery or Spreading Gooseberry or Wild Black Gooseberry.

Coast Black Gooseberry blossom

When you look closely at Ribes divaricatum blossoms you see that they’re nearly inside-out. The red parts are actually sepals surrounding the white petals.

Coast Black Gooseberry blossom

Looking even closer, we see that the stamens are longer than the petals and that the pair of styles are covered in tiny hairs.

Coast Black Gooseberry

Coast Black Gooseberry isn’t a particularly showy shrub. We’ve planted it in our front yard, full sun garden, where it’s putting up multiple stems that are seemingly thrown every which way. Frankly, it looks like a mess from a distance even after we pruned some of the excess away earlier this spring. This is one of those plants you really need to look at closely to appreciate its beauty.

Later in the season there should be lots of tasty dark blue-black fruit. We enjoy eating them fresh, but usually the birds get to them first.

Prickly Currant flower buds

Another of the native currants we grow is Ribes lacustre, Prickly Currant. It’s also known as Black Swamp Gooseberry, Swamp Gooseberry, or simply Black Gooseberry. Look closely among the emerging foliage and you’ll see the beginnning of flower buds. It’s going to be a few weeks before it’s in full bloom.

We have both of these species growing wild in our woods. We transplanted small plants to the garden where they’re growing vigorously, much more so than they did in the partial shade of the forest. In fact, the Coast Black Gooseberry lives up to its other common name, Straggly Currant, when growing in the shade. There it tends to have fewer stems and a more arching habit.

Golden Currant blossoms

Golden Currant, Ribes aureum, is native to the east side of the Cascades. There you’ll typically find it at the base of cliffs or near the edge of streams where it can find a bit more water in that dry country. We planted a couple of these, purchased from the Yakima Conservation District, a few years ago and they’ve become nicely established large shrubs.

Red-flowing Currant blossoms

The fourth of our currants is the showiest of all — Red-flowering Currant, Ribes sanguineum. I photographed it as the flower buds were just beginning to show color on March 18, so in the course of three weeks it’s gone from anticipation to full-blown spectacular traffic-stopping firey shrub. We have other plants of the species around the garden that aren’t as far along, and which have flowers that are more pink than brilliant magenta-red.

Photo Note: I made all of these images on Friday evening, April 10, under a very nice softly overcast sky with my 100mm macro lens. There wasn’t much wind, but working this close to the subject it’s challenging to find a good trade-off between shutter speed (to stop motion) and aperture (to ensure enough subject is in focus) and ISO (lower means less noise). I find myself setting up a shot, depressing my remote shutter release half way, then waiting patiently for the subtle movement of the subject to calm down.

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