Monday, April 17, 2023

The Ribes Ramblings

For details of varieties I am growing see end of this post

Ribes is the scientific name for plants of the currant and gooseberry family.  Ever since I was a child I have had an interest in these plants.  It started at The Green Walk in Chingford (north east London) where my grandparents lived and to which I was a frequent visitor, staying there for much longer periods after my father went into the army in the early 1940s.  I no longer visited The Green Walk and its gardens when, as a family we moved in 1951 to Bush Barn Farm on the outskirts of Robertsbridge, East Sussex.

The Green Walk had a large garden behind the house and towards the end of the plot there were tidy rows of red and black currants and gooseberries, all of which were regularly pruned by our gardener Mr Richardson and bore reasonable crops of fruit in summer which were welcome in those lean, wartime and post war years.  I remember sitting on the kitchen table helping my grandmother top and tail gooseberries with their green, oval fruit veined with white.  The dark brown remains of the petals - the front end of the gooseberry - was pinched off between the finger and thumb nails and the operation repeated on the remains of the stalk at the rear of the fruit.  They were used to make gooseberry tart and jam.  

I also spent much time crawling around and beneath the bushes and towards the end of my days at the Green Walk spent much time looking for currant clearwing moths whose larvae bore in the stems of the plants.  I saw the adult moths on one or two occasions drifting like smoke, or large mosquitoes, among the currant stems. 

In front of the house at Bush Barn Farm there was a field of currants and blackberries about 10 acres in extent.  In our first year of residence a group of local pickers was employed to harvest the fruit, but the bushes were subsequently dug up and the area converted to grass pasture.  I was allowed to drive an old Fordson tractor during clearance operations and the two farm hands would attach a lentgth of chain to each bush which I would then haul out of the ground with tractor power.

I thought little about currants and gooseberries until we arrived at Pomfret Avenue in Luton.  There was a tiny back garden here and one of the things I thought I might grow was one or two cordons of red or white currants.  For some reason the appeal of cordons had lodged in my head somewhere along the way and I had developed an enthusiasm to create them.  But we left Luton before I could do anythink g about it.

My next currant memory was during the years at the start of this century when I worked as a consultant ecologist.  Many of the sites I visited had currants (usually redcurrant, Ribes rubrum) particularly along stream sides.  Once though I discovered a bush in fruit (see below) close to the old keeper's cottage near Brede High Heath in Brede High Woods, owned and managed by the Woodland Trust.  This was possibly a cultivated survivor from the time when the cottage was lived in during the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Apart from this my currant encounters were confined to one or two rather  neglected bushes in pots in the garden, brought by Tana when she moved from The Green in St Leonards. And then in 2023 at the age of 85 a sudden enthusiasm for the genus, or at least its fruiting members, arose in my brain. I think, because they seemed ideal plants for patio pots, especially as most had one or more dwarf forms, for outside my French windows where I could see them.   I took some cuttings too from one of these St Leonards bushes and they rooted well over the winter giving four more plants to experiment with. I also potted up a layered branch of a wild gooseberry I found many years ago in Churchland Wood.  It has rather large leaves and vicious prickles.

Ribes-watching became a major preoccupation after this.  Another spur was my purchase, in summer 2022, of a dwarf raspberry called 'Yummy' which seems to have overwintered very well in a pot.  Partly too I liked the idea of them because I think my two year old grandson Remi, who visits often, might enjoy the development of edible fruits on reachable bushes.  It also gives me the opportunity to train some cordons or double cordons if I have long enough left.  If not other members of the family will be able to inherit the plants..

During March and April 2023 I really started to get into ribesology.  First I bought a white currant, then a dwarf gooseberry called 'Giggles Red' , a dwarf blackcurrant, and a much praised variety of redcurrant called 'Rovada'.  These came from different nurseries via Amazon and the leaves were mostly in bud, or just breaking.  I wondered it the nurseries that supplied them had some way of holding growth back.

One of our first problems was with the blackcurrant as a family of voles (see below) insisted on tunnelling into the soil of the pot, though they didn't touch the currant itself.  The problem was solved by Tana spreading a mulch of urine-impregnated cat litter over the soil.  The voles fled.

Some of the St Leonards redcurrants down the garden are coming in to flower.

And I photographed this wild, self-sown redcurrant bush also down the garden.  These are quite common in the Sussex countryside here but rarely, if ever, bear fruit.

I continued my researches on 19 April in an attempt to find out why the Giggles series of gooseberries had been so named.  The best guess was that it somehow related to 'goggles', an old-fashioned name for the fruit.  When I was a boy we often used to refer to gooseberries as goosegogs and one source said that 'gooseberry bush' was a 19th C term for pubic hair, hence the idea of finding babies 'under the gooseberry bush'.  The Giggles Series is closely associated with the nursery firm Thompson and Morgan and I think the variety name may have originated with them.

Below I have listed our current currant collection and will add to it as occasion demands.

Blackcurrant 'Summer Pearls Patio'  Early April 2023.  Thompson and Morgan

Gooseberry 'Giggles Red' 24 March 2023.  Thompson and Morgan

Gooseberry from Churchland Wood

Redcurrant from The Green, St. Leonards

Redcurrant 'Rovada'.  10 April 2023.  From Fruits of Perthshire.  One of the most popular varieties, .  Rovada was developed in 1980 in the Netherlands by L.M. Wassenaar of the Institute of Horticulture and Plant Breeding.  It is the product of Fay's Prolific x Heinemann's Rote Spatlese.

Whitecurrant 'Summer Pearls White'.  23 March 2023. YouGarden