University of Maryland Extension

Gooseberries, Currants, Elderberries

red currants on shrub

Red Currants

Currant flowers
Currant flowers
Photo: Luke Gustafson

Gooseberries and currants are woody perennial shrubs that reach a height of 3 to 6 feet when mature. In Europe, in the 1800s enthusiasts could choose from 700 cultivars of gooseberry and would join “gooseberry clubs.” Most of the European cultivars were large-fruited and sweet as a result of centuries of selection and breeding, whereas American types had less desirable flavor and more disease resistance. Several European cultivars are available from specialty nurseries. Gooseberries grown today are primarily hybrids of these two types, offering good flavor as well as disease (mildew) resistance. Although seldom eaten fresh due to their tart flavor, currants make excellent jams and jellies. 

Jostaberry is a black currant-gooseberry cross. Plants are vigorous and thornless and grow to 5 feet in height. Hardy and disease-resistant, the large fruit has a mild, black currant flavor.

Legal Restrictions 

There is often confusion as to the legality of growing gooseberries and currants. Until 1966, a federal ban prohibited the growing of Ribes. The ban was established because gooseberries and currants can serve as alternate hosts to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). This federal ban was rescinded in 1966 after it was discovered that other plants could act as the host as well. In 1933, Maryland passed a law limiting gooseberry and currant cultivation, but the law is not enforced because white pine blister rust is not a significant problem in Maryland.
All Ribes are therefore grown in the state. Nevertheless, if you have white pine nearby, you may want to consider growing less susceptible types of Ribes. Black currant (Ribes nigrum) is the more susceptible species, and for this reason, many areas outside of Maryland still prohibit its cultivation. There are, however, resistant cultivars of black currant. Red and white currants are less susceptible, and gooseberries are the least susceptible.

Planting

Red currants and gooseberries are self-fertile but will produce more and larger fruit where more than one cultivar provides cross-pollination. Some black currants are self-sterile and require another cultivar for fruit production.
Unlike most fruiting plants, gooseberry, currant, and jostaberry tolerate partial shade. These plants can all be effectively mixed into a home landscape. You need to know the specific growth characteristics of individual cultivars to make appropriate selection and placement.

Select a cool, moist, partially-shaded site. In fall or early spring, plant well-rooted 1- or 2-year-old dormant plants. Set plants two inches deeper than they were grown in the nursery. Cut back the top portions of the plant to 6 to 10 inches. Remove flower blossoms from plants in the first year to encourage plant establishment and growth for future years. Beware of overwatering, which will increase the chances of root-rot diseases. Well-established plants can fruit for 10 to 15 years or more.

Pruning

Prune plants when they are dormant in early spring just before growth resumes. Red currants and gooseberries produce fruit at the base of 1-year-old wood, but the greatest production is on spurs of 2- and 3-year-old wood. Therefore, regularly remove 4-year wood and choose the best 1-year wood as replacement canes. Black currants produce best on 1-year wood. Strong 1-year shoots combined with 2- and 3-year wood will provide the heaviest yields.

Elderberry

elderberry fruit
Elderberry
Photo: Jan Samanek, Phytosanitary

Administration, Bugwood.org

white elderberry flowers
Elderberry flowers
Photo: Luke Gustafson

Because of their unusual taste, elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are popular in wines, jam, jellies, and pies. Most people consider elderberries too tart for eating fresh from the plant. This native plant is extremely hardy, seldom frost damaged, and easy to grow. Landscapers recommend it as an ornamental for its showy white flower clusters and black fruit. Elderberries are also on most wildlife plant lists as an attractant and food source.

Site Selection and Planting

Elderberries tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, including poorly drained soils, but they grow best on a well-drained silt loam with a pH of 6.5. Elderberries like full sun but will tolerate some shade.
Plant in early spring as dormant plants. Place rows 10 feet apart and plant six feet apart in the row. Alternate varieties or rows of different varieties to ensure successful cross-pollination and larger yields. Fertilizer application is not recommended in the first year. Because elderberries have shallow, fibrous roots, they are susceptible to drought, especially in the first year. Take care to provide sufficient water for plants to get well established.

Pruning

Elderberries require a yearly dormant season pruning for consistent season-to-season yields. Elderberries fruit most heavily on second-year canes. Seek a balance of second- and third-year canes. Remove third-year canes during the following dormant pruning. This will stimulate a new generation of first-year canes when growth resumes in spring. Also, regular removal of diseased or insect-infested canes will help eliminate most pest damage and ensure a long-lived, productive planting.

Harvest

Elderberries are best cut from the stem as a cluster and hand-stripped. Harvest is usually between mid-August and mid-September, depending on cultivar and location. Plants mature between the second and fourth season and can yield six to eight pounds per mature plant. Birds are a serious pest in elderberry plantings. Make plans to cover the plants with bird netting when fruits form to prevent your planting from becoming a habitual feeding ground.

 

Maintained by the IET Department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. © 2019. Web Accessibility