General knowledge says that New Hampshire does not allow planting Ribes (currants and gooseberries) because it was originally thought they caused Pine Blister Rust (PBR) which can kill young pine saplings. The reality is that PBR requires both pine and ribes to survived, if one is absent then the fungus will die out naturally. The pathogen does not overwinter on the ribes plants. From 1917 to 1986 a program of eradication began in New Hampshire and most of the northeast and removed all identified ribes. At the same time most States passed laws that prohibited the importation and planting of ribes plants.
Resulting from research and breeding programs , various PBR resistant strains of ribes have been produced and a few years ago New Hampshire authorized planting, under permit, of a limited number of tested, PBR resistant strains. My initial application got lost on a desk somewhere in 2008 and was finally approved in July 2009. I ordered 6 varieties of currants, 3 varieties of gooseberries and 1 variety of a black currant-gooseberry cross. I received them in the spring of 2010 and planted them in soil prepared the previous fall. As of October 2012, there are no new ribes permits allowed pending biological review and recommendations.
Currants have been popular in Europe since forever. They are frequently used to decorate cakes, tarts and torts and form the basis for Crème de Cassis, an essential ingredient in Kir Royal. My primary interest in ribes was for jams, ice cream and popsicles along with some utilitarian desire for an edible landscape and a buffer between the house and the road.
Last summer I made jelly from the Titania juice which was okay but probably suffered from the makers’ inexperience. However the ice cream was truly delicious with a tart, black cherry flavor and superb color. I am expecting to consume mass quantities of black currant ice cream this summer.
The Crandall black currant has as showy yellow flower and is more useful as an ornamental planting than for any culinary purposes. All of the other ribes have almost unrecognizable flowers, especially from any distance. The only plantings with edible berries to-date are the Titania black currant; but even their berries only managed to barely eke out a 14% BRIX, the US average is 15% with anything above 9% for gooseberries being considered good. Last year I decided to expand the Titania plantings and remove many of the other varieties while also adding 3 more dwarf cherry trees. Most of the gooseberry plantings were too short to create a visual buffer and the fruit was less than ideal.
Last summer I had a knock on the door and found my friendly New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development field biologist. She wanted to know if I had planted the ribes I received the permit for. She said the PBR resistant strains allowed in New Hampshire are not quite as resistant as thought. She asked if I would mind if she and a few other biologists came to inspect my plantings. Being the friendly sort, I said sure; the next week she and 10 other State, University and Extension Specialists descended and they found PBR infections on all of my 10 varieties of ribes. They took samples from each and headed back to the lab to confirm their field findings.
Given what I perceived as a poor quality berry (juice), I graciously offered to rip all of the ribes out. The only one that I really had any interest in was the Titania and I could live without it. I could easily get a road way buffer with a good planting of cultivated blueberries and I wanted to add those dwarf cherry trees. To my surprise they said no; they would prefer that I keep the plantings because I have more varieties than they can find elsewhere (we are also only a mile from the University), I had prepared the soil specifically for ribes, installed drip irrigation to ensure they don’t get parched, fertilize them annually, and with the exception of Powdery Mildew they are healthy and representative of what the plantings should become.
I didn’t hear the lab results but there is no reason to expect the field identification was incorrect. I did rip out a few of the Rondam red currants (foreground just left of center) that had died over the winter and I planted two dwarf cherry trees; I will plant the third one next spring. I also pulled out a few of the Crandalls and planted some Titania clones that I was able to start last summer. You can make out the newly planted dwarf Bing cherry in the foreground center:
Recently our State foresters and biologists along with the Northeast Regional Director came for a follow-up field visit. We talked about my plans to remove various plantings and I was urged to keep them through the end of the season. Other than wanting to plant another dwarf cherry, I really don’t mind keeping all the varieties if it actually provides some insight into improving the local management of Pine Blister Rust without returning to the remove and burn management practice of a few years ago.
The current currant status in New Hampshire is: