Growing Currants

My favorite berries are blueberries (wild Alaskan ones of course!) and raspberries, but I have a special place in my heart for currants  as well. Like many Americans, currants aren’t a mainstay. I first heard about currants from my grandma who lived in Anchorage. She was fanatic about them and currant jelly specifically. But I didn’t really appreciate them until later in life when I took a berry class from Dr. Pat Holloway. Importantly, I learned to identify them. This is an important first step in identifying any wild berry, particularly if there is a poisonous berry that is the similar color (there is and it is bane berry!). Wild currants can also be mistaken for high bush cranberries. Unlike high bush cranberries and lowbush cranberries which are too tart for me to want to eat  fresh and high bush too seedy, I like fresh currants. I also like them made into syrup and jelly as well. You can make currant jam but it’s not easy! I prefer eating red currants fresh to black currants because their skin is much thicker. However, black currants have even higher antioxidant levels and vitamin C levels than red currants.

There are six species of black and red currants that are native to Alaska. Searching Ribes in plants.usda.gov via the Alaska State search will bring up all the species of Ribes in Alaska, including gooseberries. I’ve never seen them in quantity enough to pick many in the wild, but that may change along with the climate. In the wild, I find currants in the understory of forested areas, and so unlike many berries that prefer full sun, you can grow currants in partial shade.

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Beyond Strawberries and Raspberries—Try Currants, Honeyberries, Serviceberries and More!

Raspberries and strawberries are ubiquitous in Alaska gardens and I, for one, never tire of eating them.

But there are other lesser known types of berries that also thrive in Alaska that are worth trying. You might even find a new favorite.

Saskatoons (or serviceberries), haskaps (or honeyberries), currants and gooseberries are well adapted to Alaskan growing conditions.

red currants growing on a bush

I love the tart, unique taste of currants. There are many varieties to choose from. They are a bit seedy, but the seeds can be eaten. They make an excellent jelly.

Saskatoons and haskaps are incredibly prolific and productive. They can be eaten fresh or in baked goods or preserves.

saskatoon bushes

Saskatoon or serviceberries are prolific. To me, they don’t compare to blueberries, but they’re a berry nonetheless.

Haskaps have the added benefit that they mature earlier than other berries, which extends the time you can be eating fresh berries. I love the tart flavor of currants, which is excellent when made into syrup or jam.

Growing berries is not as straightforward as growing lettuce or carrots. But at least you don’t have to plant them every year since they are generally perennial. Most berries benefit from full sun, mulching, compost, weed control, disease prevention measures, plentiful pollinators, good drainage and consistent watering. But berries vary substantially in their day/night length requirements, fertility needs, ideal pH, cold tolerance, required pruning regime and pollination strategies. Continue reading