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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

The Currant (Gooseberry) Family, Grossulariaceae

The Currant Family is a small one, consisting of only one genus and about 200 species. In the past, currants and gooseberries were included in the Saxifrage family, but are now in their own family, Grossulariaceae. The currants (Ribes) and the gooseberries (Grossularia) were also classified as two separate genera, but the plants are so similar that both are now included in a single genus, Ribes (pronounced “RIBE-eez,” from an Arabic word that means “acidic”). The main difference between currants and gooseberries is that the former have prickly (“armed”) stems, whereas currants are smooth-stemmed. All members of the currant family are shrubs that bear (mostly) edible berries. The garden gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) and the cultivated currant (Ribes nigra) have been grown for centuries. Many species of Ribes grow in our mountains and they resemble each other—and the domesticated fruit—so that if one is acquainted with one species it is not difficult to recognize others as members of the same family.

Golden currant, Ribes aureum Pursh (left, right). The golden currant grows in all but our southeastern states. It is identified by its yellow flowers, three-lobed leaves, and tasty berries. The berries are usually yellow to orange in color, but at times are red or even black. While all Ribes are to a degree edible, the golden currant is the sweetest. The shrubs are attractive and should make a good ornamental, although they seem seldom to be used for that purpose. The Lewis and Clark expedition first collected the plant near the Three Forks of the Missouri on July 29, 1805, and again the following spring near today’s The Dalles on the Columbia River (April 16, 1805).

Squawberry, Ribes cereum Douglas (left, right). The squawberry, or wax currant (the latter is considered pc), grows as high as treeline in our western states, and east to South Dakota and Oklahoma. Its creamy-white flowers are about half an inch long, and its translucent berries are edible, but tasteless. Indians used the fruit for pemmican, hence the plant’s common name. David Douglas was the first to collect this species along the Columbia River in 1825. The name cereum means “waxy” for the berries’ appearance.

Swamp Black Gooseberry, Ribes lacustre (Pers.) Poir. (left, right). The prickly wild gooseberrry is another easily identified Ribes. It grows in moist places and on streambanks. The small, filmy flowers and shiny leaves are distinctive. Its stems are prickly. The plants black fruit may also have soft prickles, unlike those of other wild currants. The berries are edible but sour—only suitable as an emergency food.

Sticky currant, Ribes viscosissimum Pursh (left). Touch this plant’s foliage and you will see how it got its names. Meriwether Lewis collected the plant—unknown then to science—on June 16, 1806, on the Lolo Trail while eastward bound, noting that it grew on “The hights of the rocky mountain...Fruit indifferent and gummy...” The plant is common in our western states and adjacent Canadian provinces. The sticky black fruit is somewhat larger than those of other wild currants.

Hudson’s Bay currant, Ribes hudsonianum Richards. (left, right). The Hudson’s Bay currant (also northern black currant) is a montane to subalpine streamside plant, that grows all across northern North America. The shrubs bear sprays of white flowers that ripen into black fruit. Maple-like leaves give off an acrid odor similar to that of cat urine, explaining another common name, “stinking currant.” Despite this, the berries are reasonably palatable. Two varieties occur in Idaho; ours is var. petiolare (Dougl.) Jancz.; the other, var. hudsonianum, grows near the Canadian border.

Henderson’s gooseberry, Ribes oxyacanthoides L. var. hendersonii (C. L. Hitchc.) P. K. Holmgren (left, right). Henderson’s gooseberry is an alpine plant that grows in Idaho’s Lost River Range (where this plant was photographed), and in Montana’s Anaconda, and Nevada’s Toiyabe mountain ranges. Although it lacks small branch prickles, it is armed with impressively long thorns. We have not seen a fruiting plant. Several other varieties of Ribes oxyacanthoides are recognized; these occur at lower elevations. The species as a whole is found from Alaska to Hudson’s Bay, south to the Great Lakes and northern Great Plains. Louis Fourniquet Henderson (1853-1942), for whom this variety was named, was Professor of Botany at the University of Idaho and, subsequently, at the University of Oregon, during the first half of the twentieth century.

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