National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Two Berries Known Best for Their Jelly C URRANTS and gooseberries, spicy flavored berries used in America chiefly for cooking, are prime examples of how fruit can be improved and yields increased by cul tivation and breeding. In its wild state, a gooseberry weighs somewhat less than a quarter of an ounce. Under culture, goose berries have been increased to eight times this size, with individual berries weighing up to two ounces. At an experimental farm in Ottawa, Canada, currant bushes of the Pearl variety have been grown for years with an average yield at the rate of 12,402 pounds per acre. Peak yield has been at the rate of more than 13 tons an acre. Currants and gooseberries, related fruits of the genus Ribes, are native in the colder parts of Europe and North America. While they are planted in many home fruit gardens in the northern half of the United States, they are not nearly so important here as in the northern European countries. In England especially they are grown in great quantities and eaten both as fresh fruit and in jams, pies, and puddings. The European history of these two fruits is very similar. Neither is well adapted to culture in southern Europe, and neither is mentioned in early horticultural writings from the Mediterranean countries. Species from which the cultivated varieties were developed are native over most of Europe, but in south ern areas grow only in the high mountains. Thus it was not until agriculture and horticul ture developed in northern Europe that these fruits attained any importance. Both currants and gooseberries were first mentioned as garden fruit plants about the time of the discovery of America. References in English writings begin about the middle of the 16th century. At least one German writer described currants in some detail late in the 15th century. Both fruits probably first at tained importance in the Low Countries of Europe, particularly the Netherlands. Dried "Currants"Are Really Grapes The name currant is misleading. It apparently derives from the resemblance of the berry to the currant or Corinth grape, a small-fruited, seedless grape long grown for drying. So-called dried "currants" of com merce, to the present time, both in Europe and America, are actually dried grapes of this type, and not really currants at all. The origin of the name gooseberry is less certain. The obvious assumption is that it was once largely served with goose. It seems more probable, however, that the English name is derived from the Dutch name kruis bes, literally, "cross-berry." The currant was listed with other fruits and crop plants sent to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. Gooseberries also were sent to the New World then, or shortly thereafter, though we have no specific record of the date. The European currants thrived so well in America that little effort has been made to improve our native kinds, although many species of currants are native here. The white and red varieties commonly grown are derived mainly from the European species Ribes sativum and R. rubrum. The best commercial varieties are probably hybrids of these two species. Black currants of the species R. nigrum are extensively grown in northern Europe, and have long been said to have medicinal value. Recent research has shown that they are extremely rich in vitamin C. They are not grown to any extent in this country. The European gooseberries, R. grossularia, thrive in the United States only in the cool Pacific Coast regions where summers are dry. In the more humid eastern States, the mildew disease attacks the plants of European kinds so severely that culture is difficult. Selections of native American species re sistant to the mildew, mainly R. hirtellum, began to appear in American fruit catalogues about a century ago. A little later, varieties that apparently are natural crosses of Euro pean varieties and the Americans were se lected, and today are the important kinds grown here. They combine the quality of the Europeans with the disease resistance and the heat tolerance found in native kinds. Host to an Enemy of the Pine The white pine blister-rust disease is ex tremely destructive to the white, or five-needle pine, one of our most valuable forest trees. Species of Ribes are agents in the spread of this disease. The blister-rust fungus does not spread from pine to pine, but undergoes one stage of its development in the leaves of currants and gooseberries. For this reason, Federal and State Gov ernments have spent millions of dollars to eradicate native Ribes in areas where the white pine is important. For the same rea son, planting of currants and gooseberries is prohibited by law in the areas of the country where white pine is of major importance. Where growing these fruits is permitted, they are valuable additions to the home gar dens in the northern half of the country. They are little used in this country as fresh fruit; gooseberries are most often picked for cook ing while still green. They are prized by those whose ancestry traces to northern Euro pean countries, where these tart, strongly flavored fruits are traditional favorites.