Currant affairs

Red, white or black?  Each type of currant has multiple uses. Photos by Gillian Vine.
Red, white or black? Each type of currant has multiple uses. Photos by Gillian Vine.
White and red currants fruit on old wood.
White and red currants fruit on old wood.
Fruit on bunches (strigs) of modern blackcurrants ripen all at once.
Fruit on bunches (strigs) of modern blackcurrants ripen all at once.
A young blackcurrant after pruning.
A young blackcurrant after pruning.
Pruning is needed to create an open bush.
Pruning is needed to create an open bush.
Blackcurrants bloom in early November, slightly ahead of red and white kinds.
Blackcurrants bloom in early November, slightly ahead of red and white kinds.

Winter is the time to plant and prune currant bushes. Gillian Vine reports.

Good southern gal that I am, I grew up eating currants and one of my early memories is sitting in a fruit cage in Heriot, pigging out on redcurrants while my older sisters picked fruit around me.

Like gooseberries, to which they are closely related, currants are ideal for small gardens, especially in the South as cold winters and low humidity suit them.

There are three kinds of currants, black (Ribes nigrum), red (R. rubrum) and white, which is an albino form of redcurrant.

Whether you grow black, red or white kinds, one of the beauties of currants is their versatility.

As well as making great pies, jam and drinks, blackcurrants preserve well, are used in sweets and the leaves can be used to make a sorbet.

Redcurrant jelly is the perfect accompaniment to roast duck or venison, while whitecurrant and nectarine jelly is the ultimate spread for fresh bread.

Blackcurrants are high in vitamin C, approximately three times as much as the same weight of oranges.

Redcurrants have about one-third as much, but are a good source of vitamin B. Whitecurrants have low vitamin levels.

On the health front, there’s recent good news: research by scientists at Plant & Food Research, in collaboration with Northumbria University, England, shows compounds found in blackcurrants may help offset neurodegenerative symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease and mood disorders, including stress and anxiety.

The scientists used a New Zealand-bred variety, Blackadder, one of several bred by BlackHort, a Plant & Food Research subsidiary.

The beauty of newer types is that the fruit on each bunch (strig) ripens all at once, avoiding the chore of repeat picking.

In the home garden, currants take up relatively little space, especially if grown in pots or as standards or hedges, and are long-lived.

Commercial growers expect a blackcurrant bush to crop for up to 15 years and may then cut it to the ground so it will resprout with fresh enthusiasm.

Winter is the time to plant new bushes and  prune old ones.

Currants can be grown successfully in semi-shade but need a fairly open spot.

Prepare the ground by enriching with compost and a balanced fertiliser at the rate of  85g per sq m.

Keep the soil moist but not wet, especially once the fruit forms.

Because the bushes are shallow-rooted, hoeing around currants is a bit tricky.

Hand-weeding is better and mulching with a thick layer of compost or well-rotted manure helps keeps the weeds down while giving the currants a good feed.

In spring, feed established bushes with a handful of granular fertiliser.

As fruit develops, protect it from birds, which can strip a bush in a startlingly short time.

Whether colour matters to birds is unclear but they seem less interested in whitecurrants than red or black.

Thankfully, possums aren’t big on currants, preferring to chomp through any unprotected gooseberries.

When it comes to pruning, different approaches are necessary for each species because blackcurrants fruit on the light brown stems they put out the previous summer, while redcurrants and whitecurrants fruit on spurs on old wood.

If you can’t remember which is which, rub a bud: blackcurrants have a distinctive smell, while the others have none.

All currants should first have suckers cut below the ground and at the end of pruning, bushes should be fairly open to enable good air circulation.

Prune blackcurrants by cutting out old, darker wood, leaving the pale stems to produce next January’s fruit.

With red and white currants, the approach can be a bit gentler: take back branches by about a third and cut out any untidy, downward-facing twigs.

Save straight pieces of pruning material 25cm to 30cm long if you want to increase the number of bushes.

Strike them in pots or in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden and plant out next autumn or winter.

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