Ribes - Featured Genus for the Spring Plant Sale

This spring, our chapter's plant sale features Ribes, a popular genus for the garden that comprises the currants and gooseberries. Most of the species on offer grow natively in our county, which means they have high value for local wildlife. All provide early spring nectar for hummingbirds, and their berries are relished by cedar waxwings and other local birds. And they are so pretty!

These lovely currants and gooseberries are suitable for coastal gardens from shoreline to ridge top, as well as for Bay Area gardens. All are easy-going, fairly pest free, thrive in many different soils, and require little water. Only pink flowering currant likes moderate water; the rest are drought tolerant. Pink flowering currant and catalina current prefer some shade; the rest do well in sun or partial shade. They are all tolerant of pruning-but remember that blossoms grow on last season's stems-and they are easy to grow from cuttings.

At the spring plant sale, you'll find many showy cultivars and selections of the species I've mentioned. In fact, I purchased most of my Ribes at prior sales-and as you can guess, I have never regretted it.

Let me tell you about the ones in my garden and the conditions they prefer. There's quite a wide variety of colors and forms among the species, and each has its own particular characteristics that suit different garden niches - maybe there's a niche or two in your garden waiting for a nice currant bush.

Jackie Pascoe

Abronia umbellata
Pink flowering currant. Many cultivars, such as 'Barrie Coate', have longer clusters

The early pendulous pink clusters of blossoms of pink-flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum, and the delicate unfolding apple-green leaves on its graceful vase-shaped form, lift my spirits on dull February days. Showiest of all the ribes, I find it prefers light or partial shade and likes a little more water than some. Actually, the best specimens I've seen were in a park in London-it's popular in the U.K.

Abronia umbellata
Golden currant - prune, or let it grow tall and lanky as an understory plant.

Ribes aureum, the golden currant, also has a loose branching habit. It can get very tall and can thicket to fill a large area. It's the only Ribes on my property that the deer have eaten--and they have not touched it for several years. Deer can munch on any young juicy plant though, so it's a good idea to cage any young plant or spray with a deer repellant.

Abronia umbellata
White-flowered currant, grows large and wide, with interesting bark

Earliest of all in my garden is a large Ribes indecorum, white-flowered currant, whose lovely full and open form lights up with creamy white clusters in late January, lasting through February. It likes sun and is very drought tolerant.

Abronia umbellata
Chaparral currant, tough and pretty

Under some coast live oaks, R. malvaceum, the chaparral currant, grows without any attention at all, tough and drought resistant, shorter and perhaps less elegant than pink-flowering currant, but also radiantly pretty with soft pink clusters.

Abronia umbellata
Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry--A beauty, but watch out for those spiny branches!

Ribes speciosum, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, stuns me year after year with its small jewel-like pendulous flowers, vivid scarlet, running in rows all along its bristly stems, startling against the smooth green leaves. I keep it on the edge of a bank where I don't have to pass by, or prune it much! It doesn't like summer water, but you have to get it established before you can totally ignore it in summer--it's a balancing act, the first year, then it is indestructible.

Abronia umbellata
Catalina currant, lovely foliage, sprawling over a wall. Likes shady locations

On the same bank, I enjoy the only evergreen member of the genus (in California that is), Ribes viburnifolium, catalina currant (also known as catalina perfume), endemic to Santa Catalina Island. Grown for its fragrant foliage, its nickel-sized glossy round leaves are quite atypical of the genus as a whole, whose leaves are typically three- or five-lobed, sometimes velvety, resinous, and aromatic. Catalina currant has a branching habit and roots where the tips touch the soil, which I enjoy--but you can also prune it as more of a ground cover. Surprisingly drought tolerant for such a glossy plant, it's also good under oaks.