Black Currants: America’s Delicious Forbidden Fruit
Plus Make Black Currant Jam!
By Patricia Baird Greene – Black currants are easy-to-grow, requiring very little care, which was perfect for us! One spring, we were buying baby fruit trees at our local nursery and were excited about starting a small orchard on our 10-acre homestead. As we loaded apple trees, pear trees, and hardy peach trees, the salesman said, “Hey, how about I throw in a couple of these—for free?” We’d never before seen the scrawny little bushes, really just a few branches each. “What are they?” we asked. “Black currants,” he explained to only vague recognition on our part. We assumed he had an over-abundance of some odd unpopular thing he’d ordered and we took them home.
They sat out in the yard for a month while we got the fruit trees and veggie garden planted and only occasionally remembered to wonder where we would plant the currants. Finally they came to rest in an unused, not even particularly fertile, sunny part of the yard outside the garden fence. We fertilized them at first, but there they lived pretty much on their own and outside our scope of serious attention for four years.
One midsummer I suddenly realized that the scrawny shoots had filled out into bushy greenery almost as tall as I was. Our little orphans were so full of clusters of large black berries that the branches, which generally shoot skyward, were bending over.
For the first time, I popped a few ripe berries into my mouth. Whew! Intense! Kind of pleasantly sour and interestingly tart and tangy, but not bitter. It was definitely a unique rich new taste that I labeled earthy, if sort of mouth-puckering. So far, the two burgeoning bushes had been immune to diseases and insects and quite able to take care of themselves — a definite plus on our busy homestead.
I hurried inside to research black currants, about which I knew nothing about and was surprised to learn they have four times the Vitamin C of oranges and two times the antioxidants of blueberries! Making homemade jam seemed one easy way to preserve them. If frozen they have a shelf life of six months; three months if storing in the fridge. One good thing about currants: their pH is so high it prohibits all bacterial formation. There were recipes for drinks and wines.
The next morning we mixed the berries with yogurt on our cereal. Sweetened was best, unless you’re a sour freak! In our jam (see recipe below), we use organic sugar. I also found out that until recently, currants were the outlaws of the American edible plant kingdom. Back in the 20th century there was a complete ban on growing currants here due to the belief that they harbored the white pine blister fungus and were a threat to the timber industry. In most states, the ban has been lifted, though in several (including mine!) it still exists, or you are required to get a permit to grow them. Check online to find out. However, I would suspect that if you only have a bush or three, the Currant Police are not about to swoop down on you!
Greg Quinn, now of New York’s Hudson Valley but formally of the New York Botanical Gardens, is the current Currant Guru. In 1999, he helped overturn the national ban on currants and now has the only dedicated currant farm and nursery in the U.S. at his farm called CurrantC. They market their currants in many different forms, including frozen, concentrated, nectar, and effervescent immune enhancing tablets with Echinacea.
In Europe, black currants have long been popular and their flavor is even used in candies. They are native to the central and northern countries there. They prefer damp, fertile soils, are winter hardy, and both fruit and foliage have uses in traditional medicine and in producing deep-hued dyes.
They are not very tolerant of drought or surprise frosts, so desert dwellers or far north neighbors might not fare so well with currants, though here in New Hampshire they seem to thrive.
If you want to be proper about it, they are supposed to be set about five feet apart, but our two sisters were planted only about two feet apart and they still seem to enjoy each other. It’s best to use some sort of feeder fertilizer with the nutrients nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and to spread organic mulch around them.
The fruit is produced on one-year-old shoots, so prune them at first to give the plant time to get properly established before putting its energy into producing fruit. Generally, when pruning, remove all weak shoots and those that are growing sideways. Thin any old unproductive branches thereby encouraging new shoots. You can remove up to one-third of the branches each year, but as I’ve tried to indicate, we have found that these plants have a will to live and are not picky queen bees. Of course, commercial harvesting is done mechanically, but as you see from our photos, currants are so gloriously prolific that one homesteader will harvest a basketful rather quickly and find it hugely satisfying.
The only disease in America we have to worry about is the white pine blister rust which causes the currant leaves to become pale and develop tiny orange pustules and sometimes a yellow coating. Severely infected plants should be burned. If you have white pines nearby, it can possibly, but not likely, cause disease and mortality in the trees. So simply don’t plant them under a white pine.
Currant leaf spot or leaf midge, are not usually a serious problem and now Canadian research has produced varieties that are immune to white pine blister. You could ask about this when buying.
Black currants can easily be dried. There is a British drink called Ribena you may find in the import section of a grocery store. Black currant seed oil contains an omega-6 fatty acid that helps ease inflammation and soreness. Black currant juice is known to decrease plaque buildup and lower blood pressure.
MAKE A SIMPLE BLACK CURRANT JAM
This is a tart, rich preserve that sets well and is so easy you hardly need a recipe. You will need a sugar thermometer and small glass canning jars with lids boiled in water to sterilize. Use one pound of black currants, one pound of granulated or caster sugar, and the juice of two lemons.
Place berries in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil.
Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until the fruit is very soft and pulpy and the liquid is almost gone. Stir occasionally.
Add the sugar and lemon juice, bring to a boil and cook until the mixture reaches 220 degrees F on a sugar thermometer.
4. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then pour into hot, clean jars and seal immediately.
Do you grow black currants? What other ways have you preserved them? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of Countryside and regularly vetted for accuracy.