Comox Valley Naturalists Society
Knowing Nature . . .
March 20, 2007
Around mid-March the bright pink flowers of red-flowering currant turn our attention from winter to spring. This triggers the arrival of migrant Rufous Hummingbirds, eager to sip nectar after their long flight here. Red-flowering currant is a favourite of gardeners, since it is easy to grow, has showy flowers, and attracts hummingbirds. Scottish botanist and explorer David Douglas (1799-1834) was so impressed, that he introduced this shrub to Europe.
Red-flowering currant is a "you can't miss it" plant, since it is one of the earliest blooming, and most brightly coloured of our native shrubs. Several less conspicuous currants and gooseberries are native to Vancouver Island. Names like "stink currant" and "gummy gooseberry" entice the naturalist to seek out these lesser-known plants.
Currants and gooseberries are members of the same family. Currants have smooth stems, while gooseberries are armed with spines and prickles. All of the native currants and gooseberries on Vancouver Island are in the genus Ribes, which comes from the Persian "ribas" meaning "acid-tasting" in reference to the unripe berries. Unfortunately, the berries of most of the native species are edible, but unpalatable.
All species of Ribes have strong smelling leaves, but the aptly named stink currant (Ribes bracteosum) is the most pungent. Stink currant favours a damp coastal climate, and frequents moist to wet areas. The fairly large, maple-shaped leaves are often seen fanning out attractively over a stream. Stink currant has tiny yellow glands all over the leaves, which emit a skunky odour when crushed. It produces long clusters of white to greenish flowers, and blue-black berries with a whitish bloom. The berries are bland, but were traditionally harvested, especially by the Haida and Nuxalk peoples.
The previously mentioned red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is found on mid to southern Vancouver Island. One the northern part of the island, trailing black currant (Ribes laxiflorum) is more common. This shrub, with pretty pink flowers, can be distinguished from other currants by its habit of trailing along the ground, rather than growing upright.
In addition to the currants, there are three species of wild gooseberries to be found in our area. The black gooseberry (Ribes lacustre) has stems that are covered in prickles, with larger spines at the bases of the leaves. Don't become entangled with this plant, since some individuals have an allergic reaction to the prickles.
Black gooseberry is widespread in BC, and can be found in moist wooded areas and stream banks. It can also be encountered at subalpine elevations. Black gooseberry has clusters of tiny, maroon to pink saucer shaped flowers. These flowers are even more charming when observed through a hand-lens.
Some gooseberries have pendulous, fuchsia-like flowers. The most common of these is the wild gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum). Wild gooseberry has 1-3 chestnut coloured spines at the bases of the leaves, but is lacking prickles all up and down the stem. In BC, it is found primarily on Vancouver Island, in moist thickets and open woodlands. The flowers are white and wine red, and berries are a smooth purplish-black.
The gummy gooseberry (Ribes lobbii) is the stickiest gooseberry around. It grows in fairly dry areas and rocky outcrops. In our area, gummy gooseberry grows only in select locations, such as Buttle Lake in Strathcona Park, and Denman Island. It has the smallest leaves of any gooseberries in our area, but the fuchsia-like flowers look similar to the wild gooseberry. The berries are much larger than other gooseberries, and both the berries and leaves are sticky to touch.
Domestic currants and gooseberries, imported from other regions, produce fine crops of berries for the garden. Black, red, and white currants are available, as are many gooseberry cultivars. These berries are an excellent source of minerals and vitamins, and are particularly rich in vitamin C. Juice from the berries may be used to treat cold and flu symptoms. A tea made from the leaves also has many health benefits. Currants and gooseberries make fine jams, jellies and pies, and are often used to make wine.
This group of plants has something for everyone. The red-flowering currant arrests our sight with its showy flowers. The pungent leaves, particularly that of stink currant, are evocatively aromatic. The sticky leaves and berries of gummy gooseberry are irresistible to touch. Domestic currants and gooseberries provide healthy, flavourful berries that can be harvested from the garden. These shrubs delight the senses, and have a special beauty and charm that is well worth discovering.
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