People of a certain age may have fond memories of puckering up after eating a tart gooseberry, freshly harvested from the bush.
These days, gooseberries are a rarity, thanks to some restrictions — and myths about restrictions — about growing them all over the state of West Virginia.
In fact, I mentioned writing about gooseberries this week to some 20-somethings in my office, only to get blank stares and a question as to whether they really exist.
To borrow a well-known answer about the existence of mythical beings: “Yes, Virginia, there are gooseberries!”
Getting to know them
Before we talk about the forbidden nature of gooseberries, however, let’s get to know them a little better, since their existence might not be common knowledge to everyone.
Now, when we talk about these forbidden fruits, we also have to talk not only of gooseberries, but also their relatives, the currants.
Gooseberries and currants are all members of the genus Ribes, which is in the Grossulariaceae family.
These shrubs are native mainly to the Northern Hemisphere, mainly Europe and Asia, though there are native gooseberries.
Gooseberries are roughly the size of small grapes, which is reflected in the species name of the European species, R. uva-crispa (which translates as curved grape, rather than crispy grape, which makes me scratch my head).
Currants are much smaller — not much bigger than the size of a pin head. But don’t let the small size fool you; there’s lots of flavor in that tiny package!
Both gooseberries and currants grow on relatively compact shrubs that can actually take a little bit of shade and even moist soil. They are pretty low-maintenance, but they are heavy nitrogen feeders that will appreciate regular fertilization.
Some basic pruning also will increase yield and increase airflow, which will result in fewer disease problems with powdery mildew.
Pruning and picking gooseberries can be a small challenge, as they are well known for their thorns. A mere handful of pests compared to those affecting other fruits are possible, but not common.
Both European and American gooseberries are grown and available for purchase, with the European varieties bearing larger, tastier fruit. American varieties, though, tend to be more resistant to a mildew fungus that can affect the shrubs.
Currants come in red, white and black varieties. Some of the white varieties are a light, blush-pink color and referred to as champagne currants.
As for varieties, ‘Pixwell’ is a common American variety that has a nice purple blush. ‘Captivator’ and ‘Hinnonmaki Red’ also make good additions to the garden.
Among the European varieties, ‘Invicta’ is the current favorite with gooseberry fans, though the favor comes from its mildew resistance and not necessarily its flavor. ‘Careless’ and ‘Achilles’ are also good additions to the garden.
As for currants, ‘Cascade’ (early season), ‘Red Lake’ (midseason), ‘Rovada’ (late season) and ‘Wilder’ (mid-late season) are considered good varieties. In the white currant selections, ‘Blanka’ (mid-late season), ‘Pink Champagne’ (midseason), ‘Primus’ (late season) and ‘White Imperial’ (Midseason) are popular selections.
I would recommend some black currant varieties, but when we talk about these berries’ “bad boy” status, you’ll learn that you can’t grow them in the state.
Can you grow gooseberries and currants in the state of West Virginia?
Yes! And no! It depends on where you live.
Members of the genus Ribes are alternate hosts of a disease called white pine blister rust. This disease is devastating to white pine trees.
Either a gooseberry or currant is required for the fungus to go through its entire life cycle, so there have been many steps taken to reduce the numbers of Ribes to limit the damage to white pine trees.
A federal ban was placed on all Ribes species in the early 1900s, but was lifted in 1966. However, many states still have their own restrictions. In West Virginia, it is illegal to transport Ribes into 23 counties as outlined by an actual section of the West Virginia State Code (Chapter 19, Article 12, Section 6). These counties are in the eastern and northern portions of the state, which are more likely to be lumber-producing counties.
The 23 counties on the quarantine list are Barbour, Fayette, Grant, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hardy, Harrison, Marion, Mercer, Mineral, Monongalia, Monroe, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Preston, Raleigh, Randolph, Summers, Taylor, Tucker, Upshur and Webster.
It is perfectly legal to transport Ribes to and grow Ribes in any county that is not part of this list.
This doesn’t mean that they are easy to find. It is very difficult to find a garden catalog company that will take the time to look at a map to figure out where you are, so most just state that they cannot ship to West Virginia.
One exception I have found is the Edible Landscaping nursery in Afton, Virginia (ediblelandscaping.com). There may be more, but I haven’t run across them.
Black currants, meanwhile, are more susceptible to white pine blister rust and are therefore quarantined out of the entire state. However, several varieties have been developed that are resistant to the disease.
There are also varieties of gooseberries and other currants that are resistant. Perhaps it is time to ask our Legislature to consider revising these rules. That may, however, prove to be a thorny subject.