Most of us think of gooseberries as the small, green, sour fruits in a gooseberry pie. I remember, as a kid, thinking that they were only fit for a goose. But now I have had the pleasure of eating several varieties that are delicious, right off the bush, when fully ripe. Europeans have had a couple centuries to cultivate and breed Ribes uva-crispa,(grossularia) which is the European Gooseberry. The European varieties are said to be better tasting than American ones but more prone to disease here in the US, and it is reported that most European yards contain a couple of gooseberry bushes. Americans have a less than positive view of gooseberries, and it is rare to find them in stores and even in farmers markets. One problem is that the native American gooseberries ( Ribes hirtellum being the most common) are mouth-puckering sour. American Indian children of the Omaha tribe invented a game where the two sides competed to see which team had the most players who did not make a face when eating the unripe wild gooseberries. And Americans have not bred improved varieties like the Europeans. Now, however, crosses between the American and the European varieties are resulting in some delicious and disease-resistant new fruits for the home gardener.
Gooseberries and their relatives, the currants, are some of the easiest and most successful plants for the home gardener. They do not have fussy requirements like blueberries, don’t run like raspberries, are productive for 25 years unlike strawberries, produce fruit early and annually and take up far less space than a fruit tree. Herb Gundell, former CSU Extension director and Denver Post gardening editor for 39 years has said of gooseberries and currants that they “…will absolutely require nothing in the way of soil, maintenance or care. They will produce in any kind of condition, even if the weather is the most forbidding, even in years when we have no fruit at all on the trees.” And gooseberries are extremely healthy as they are high in antioxidants, anthocyanins, fiber, potassium, and Vitamins C and A, etc.
Lewis Hill, a famous fruit explorer, nurseryman and garden writer has stated that his favorite pie is a gooseberry pie. And people do make pies from both the ripe and unripe berries. It is also common to use gooseberries in jams, jellies, juices and preserves. Michael Phillips in his recent book The Holistic Orchard gives this receipe for gooseberry butter: “Heat the berries until the skins pop, then force them through a colander, add sugar in equal proportion to the pulp and simmer until thick.” There are many varieties that are delicious right off the bush, with vanilla ice cream, in smoothies and in granola.
Gooseberries grow naturally in cooler climates, so in our hotter western temperatures, it is better to grow them where they get morning sun and shade from the afternoon sun, and perhaps even better in filtered shade, except in the mountains. When temperatures are over 86 degrees F., some varieties will drop their leaves. And the fruit can sunburn especially if exposed by overpruning. It is recommended to mulch deeply around them with 3”-4” of fine wood chip mulch which holds the moisture and keeps the soil cooler. Whereas they can still produce with little care, they will bear more fruit if the soil is amended annually with a dairy cow manure compost or the local chicken manure fertilizer Nature Cycle and maybe some Greensand or banana peels for potassium.
For best production, it is good to prune gooseberries. Thin out the shoots to 9 or 12 and remove canes older than 4 years (they have dark brown bark). Do not cut to the ground as they fruit on wood that is at least one year old. Keep the center open enough to allow for picking, but leave some branching to shade the sun-burn sensitive fruit. Remove growth that touches the ground, and compact leggy growth. Gooseberries start bearing after a year old, but may take 4-5 years to attain full production. While they are self-fertile, planting more than one variety can boost yields.
Some eastern states are still worried about the White Pine Blister Rust that is carried by some Ribes including gooseberries. The ban was lifted in 1960 and the problem is mostly from native wild species; the newer cultivated varieties are said not to spread the disease, which is not a problem in the west.
Did I mention thorns? For full disclosure, you should know that some gooseberries have a few thorns and some have a lot of big thorns. Thorns are some protection against wildlife eating the fruit and browsing the shrubs. Gooseberry bushes can also function as a barrier to control traffic across the yard, and can even keep out dogs and other animals. A couple years ago I discovered that thorny roses at the base of my plum tree kept out the raccoons so this year I am planning to plant gooseberries at the base of my grape arbor to see if that will keep the raccoons from my grapes. By adding a couple of new posts and 2x4s I will use the grapes to give my gooseberries some shade.
Gooseberry varieties I have tried and like are:
Invicta-an English variety that produces very large, white fruit that is very sweet and delicious. The 3’-4’ shrubs are very thorny and very productive. It is resistant to mildew.
Hinnomaki Red-a selection from Finland that is popular with its tart skin and sweet flesh. The fruits are dark red and begin fruiting the first year.
Camanche (Red Jacket)-and English variety that was rated as the best gooseberry at the USDA Cheyenne Horticultural Station, and picked as a Plant Select winner in 2001. It is very hardy and productive with large, red sweet/tart and juicy fruit. This one may need part shade to be healthy and happy.
Others I am planting this year are:
Captivator- a cross between European and American species that is nearly thornless with large, deep pink fruit that is sweet when ripe. It is mildew resistant.
Pixwell-an old variety that is very hardy and even drought resistant. It has fruit that is green turning to pink, that is sweet when ripe and has few thorns. May be better cooked.
Tasti Berry- a cross between a European Black Currant and a gooseberry. In a taste test at Ft. Collins Wholesale nursery, it scored “most delicious”. Sweet and thorny; 3’-4’
On my list to get are:
Black Velvet: sweet, dark red, highly valued
Welcome: good flavor with few thorns
Poorman: very sweet red, very productive, very thorny
Hinnomaki Yellow: aromatic, sweet, yellow-green, with an apricot aftertaste
Jewel: a Polish cultivar with peach-colored fruit, very sweet and productive
Be brave, try a couple gooseberries. On the thorny ones use a leather glove on one hand to hold back the branches while you pick with the other. Kids are said not to like sour fruits but they love sweet/tart gooseberries and currants, especially since they are at kid-height. You will appreciate their success. And their wild self-protective chemistry will support your health and immune system. Since we can’t buy them, let’s grow them. Empower your food garden.