American Black Currant

Ribes americanum

American_Black_Currant_Ribes_americanum.jpg

Illustration of American black currant leaves, flowers, fruits
American black currant, Ribes americanum
Paul Nelson
Edible
Species of Conservation Concern
Other Common Name
Wild Black Currant; Eastern Black Currant; Wild Gooseberry
Family

Grossulariaceae (currants and gooseberries)

Description

American black currant is uncommon in Missouri, known from only one location in Schuyler County. The leaves have orange, resinous glands on the undersurface. An erect, ascending to spreading, spineless shrub, it bears flowers, and later black berries, in clusters of 6–15.

Leaves are alternate or in clusters, simple, blades 1–3 inches long or side, overall outline is circular; lobes 3 or 5, sharply pointed to blunt, base flattened to somewhat heart-shaped, margins irregularly toothed; upper surface dull green, smooth; lower surface somewhat hairy and dotted with an abundance of minute orange resin glands; leaf stalk slender, 1½–2½ inches long, hairy.

Bark is reddish brown, smooth, tight; pores small, oval, light-colored; wood soft, fine-grained, white, with a brown pith.

Twigs are upright to spreading, yellowish brown to grayish brown, with three ridges, extending below each leaf axil; lacking spines, hairy at first, smooth later, occasionally dotted with orange glands.

Flowers April–June, with flowers in drooping clusters of 6–15; clusters 1–3 inches long emerging from the axils of leaves; flower stalks are jointed toward the tip; flowers greenish white or yellowish, ⅜ –½ inch long; petals 5, shorter than the 5 sepals; stamens 5, not extending beyond the flower.

Fruits August–September, in drooping clusters 1½–2½ inches long; fruits ¼–½ inch across, globe-shaped, black, smooth; seeds numerous, minute, reddish purple, the surface rough or pitted. The fruits are not very palatable to humans.

Similar species: Not counting cultivated currants and gooseberries, Missouri has 4 species in genus Ribes (pronounced RYE-beez) that may be encountered in natural habitats. American black currant is one of our least common species and is a species of conservation concern.

  • Golden currant, or Missouri or buffalo currant (R. odoratum), is most similar to American black currant, for it, too, lacks bristles or spines, has flowers and fruits in fairly ample clusters (3–10), and has jointed flowering stems. However, its flowers, especially in the afternoon, have a strong fragrance, described as a combination of spicy cloves and sweet carnations. And the smooth fruits are yellow to greenish yellow, becoming black at maturity. It has a different Missouri distribution: It is uncommon in the western part of the Ozarks, and it has also been introduced in Barton and Jefferson counties and in the city of St. Louis. It occurs on ledges and tops of bluffs and on roadsides and railroads.
  • Our other Ribes species are gooseberries, with prickly stems and unjointed flowering stalks: Missouri gooseberry (R. missouriense), with its smooth, green to red or purple fruits, and prickly gooseberry, or dogberry (R. cynobati), with its prickly, greenish to pale red fruits. Compared to our two currant species, our gooseberries are relatively common and widespread.
Size

Height: to 5 feet.

Habitat and conservation

Moist, wooded hillsides and margins of fens. In 1991, a population of this species was rediscovered in Missouri from Schuyler County, at the base of a north-facing wooded slope, in a deep muck fen along the Chariton River near the Iowa border. Additional searches in similar habitat along the Iowa state line may yield additional locations for this species.

The overall range for this species extends from Delaware to northern Illinois, northern Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska, and at altitudes of 3,000 to 5,500 feet in Colorado and New Mexico, and north to New Brunswick, and west to Manitoba, Montana, Wyoming, and California. Thus Missouri is on the southern edge of its range.

Distribution in Missouri

Recently discovered in Missouri from Schuyler County. There is an old historical record of this species from the St. Louis area, but it has not been relocated.

Status

A species of conservation concern in Missouri.

Human connections

Although they are generally not considered as tasty as the fruits of other types of wild currants and gooseberries, American black currants can be eaten fresh, dried, or made into jelly or wine.

Native Americans made a strong tea from the root as a remedy for kidney trouble and to expel intestinal worms.

Globally, there are about 150 species in genus Ribes, and they are often divided (in an oversimplified way) into “currants” (with jointed flower stalks) and “gooseberries” (with unjointed flower stalks). Numerous cultivated strains of currants and gooseberries have been developed by plant breeders. Favorite cultivated gooseberries usually are derived from the Old World species R. uva-crispa (sometimes called R. grossularia), which is often hybridized with the North American species R. hirtellum (often called the American or hairy-stem gooseberry, it is not native to Missouri).

American black currant has been eradicated from parts of its range because it is the alternate host of a blister rust that attacks white pine forests. Many species of gooseberries and currants have been the subject of an aggressive eradication campaign in parts of the country where white pine grows and is harvested for lumber. The shrubs are an alternate host of the white pine blister rust, which was unintentionally brought in from Europe around 1900. This fungus attacks and kills white pine, which is an important timber tree in eastern North America. Like many other rusts, it needs two hosts to complete its life cycle; its alternate host is various species of Ribes. Since Missouri is not in the range of white pine, other than as ornamental plantings, the blister rust has not been considered a threat here. Elsewhere, however, state laws may forbid the cultivation of gooseberries and currants.

Ecosystem connections

The fruits, which are eaten by several species of birds and small mammals, mature during a long period, making the food last for some time. Birds that eat berries, no doubt including American black current, include catbirds, thrashers, robins, and waxwings. Foxes, skunks, squirrels, and mice also eat a wide range of fruits and ultimately disperse the seeds away from the parent plant.

The bushes are too thin to supply wildlife cover or nesting.

Many types of bees, flies, butterflies (notably the brown elfin), moths (notably hummingbird and clearwing moths), and wasps visit the flowers of Ribes species for nectar, pollen, or both. Spring-flowering shrubs are an important nectar source for insects that are active in early spring.

Gray comma butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves of gooseberries, and American black currant might also be a host plant for them. The early stage caterpillars feed on the undersides of the leaves, so it’s harder to see them.

Gooseberries and currants, now placed in their own family (the Grossulariaceae), used to be considered part of the saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae). But botanists using molecular (DNA) evidence have determined that the woody plants that used to be in the saxifrage family deserve to be split away into other families.