This morning, our daily hike turned out to be another excellent forage! I was on the look out for more red currants and was not disappointed. I found a thick patch of red currant shrubs growing along a stream on the trail that were full of berries. Nearby, I noticed some black currant shrubs as well, whose berries were just starting to ripen! I love the smell of black currants. As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, I later discovered some early Saskatoon berries and raspberries just in front of the cabin while checking the mail. Berry heaven!
When I got home, I did some interesting research on the genus Ribes (which includes currants), and in particular the three wild varieties that I am currently harvesting. In case you are interested, I will briefly share what I am learning in this post. By the way, as I write this, I have already sorted the berries and have gently cooked the red currants. At this very moment, they are straining (overnight) in a jelly bag. Come back tomorrow to see what I have decided to do with the juice…
Swamp Red Currant (Ribes triste)
There are about 15 different species of wild red currants growing in Canada and the northern United States. Also known as Northern Red Currant or Wild Red Currant, this shrub can be found in Boreal North America growing in moist, open woods, often on the banks of streams and preferring gravel or sandy soil.
Ribes triste is a small woody shrub, up to three feet tall, with three-lobed leaves. Unlike its relative, the gooseberry, this shrub does not have thorns. Small red berries grow in clusters and are very tart, making them excellent for jams and jellies. Berries are ready for harvest July through August.
- Eat raw, on their own or in sprinkled in salads
- Add to puddings, cakes and pies (Note: they blend with well with pears, plums, pineapple and raspberries)
- Compotes, jelly, jam, syrup, and wine
- An excellent substitute for vinegar in vinaigrettes
- Redcurrant juice makes a natural pop beverage (blend 7 cups of berries with 1 cup of water, strain, freeze the juice in ice cubes, then add to soda water)
Northern Black Currant (Ribes hudsonianum)
Black currants are very similar to red currant shrubs having the same three-lobed leaves and berries also forming in clusters. Black currant plants have a characteristically strong scent. The skin of the berry is thin and translucent, similar to that of grapes. The pulp is fragrant, tart, juicy, and contains tiny seeds.
- Liquors (famous as the main ingredient in the French liquor crème de cassis), wines, jellies, syrup and coulis
- Pie fillings, puddings, fool, and ice cream
Canada Gooseberry (Ribes oxyacanthoides)
The gooseberry shrub differs from red and black currant shrubs in that it is usually larger and very thorny, which makes it difficult to harvest. The leaves are distinctly five-lobed and the berries grow singly instead of in clusters. There are about a dozen species of wild gooseberries that grow in Canada and the northern United States.
Gooseberries vary in color and may be yellowish, green, whitish, or reddish in color, with a downy or smooth skin. The flesh of the gooseberry contains many small edible seeds and is tart, sometimes with a bitter aftertaste. As a rule, the smaller the fruit, the higher the acidity. Before eating or cooking, be sure to remove the stems and tails.
- Eat fresh with sugar or add to fruit salads
- Jellies, sorbets, syrup and chutneys
- Puddings, fools, tarts
- An excellent accompaniment for meat and fish dishes
Nutrition Information for red currants, black currant and gooseberries:
Calcium, (high in) fiber, iron, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B3 (niacin), B5, C.
Medicinal Use of Berries and Leaves:
According to Beverley Grey (whom I had the privilege of meeting a few weeks ago at the Alberta’s First Herb Gathering), Swamp Red Currant, Northern Black Currant and Canada Gooseberry have these medicinal qualities:
anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, astringent, digestive, diuretic, laxative
- Eat the berries raw or drink the diluted juice to help treat yeast infections
- Drink red currant juice or tea to reduce fever and induce sweating
- Harvest the leaves in the spring and summer before the plant goes into berry. Use the leaves fresh or dried in teas to ease the symptoms of gout and rheumatism
- Gargle the tea for mouth infections
- Use leaves as a compress or poultice for slow-healing wounds
Please see Beverley’s excellent brand new book, The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North for more information on these and other wild plants.
Note: Wikipedia adds that Blackfoot Indians used black currant root for the treatment of kidney diseases and menstrual and menopausal problems. Cree Indians used the fruit as a fertility enhancer to assist women in becoming pregnant. Currant root and seeds are high in gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA), which has been clinically verified as an effective treatment for pre-menstrual syndrome. Here’s the link if you want to check out the sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribes
Bennet, J. (1991). Berries. Camden House: Camden East, Ontario.
Cox, J., & Werles, L. (2000). Ingredients. Rushcutters Bay, NSW, Australia: JB Fairfax Press Pty Lmt.
Fortin, J. (1996). The Visual Food Encyclopedia. Montreal, Quebec: Les Edition Quebec/Amerique.
Grey, B. (2011). The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North. Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada: Aroma Borealis Press.
Lloyd, C. (1997). Gardening Cook. Minocqua, Wisconsin: Willow Creek Press.
Margen, S. (1992). The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition : How to Buy, Store, and Prepare Every Variety of Fresh Food. New York: Rebus.