Species Spotlight – Ribes americanum

Ribes americanum

Ubiquitous American black currant enjoys a wide geographical range in the northern states from Montana to Nova Scotia and as far south as New Mexico

Ribes americanum (American black currant)

Ribes americanum, American black currant, is an attractive and durable shrub in the gooseberry family that grows across much of Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, although it is considered endangered in Maryland.  Ribes americanum is a shallow-rooted, thicket-forming shrub in moist soil with loads of very early (April/May) bright yellow flowers preceding dark purple fruit in the summer.  The fruit are edible when processed or dried (you can also make wine from our black currant) and are an excellent source of Vitamins A and C,  potassium, phosphorus, and calcium.  Ribes americanum is easily grown and well-behaved in any normal garden soil condition and will easily handle both full sun and light shade as it is typically found in forest openings and along forest edges.  Ribes americanum can grow into large stands only if planted in semi-saturated areas where it grows vigorously and broken/heavy stems can bend and root in moist soils, such as in or near a drainage ditch or a low lying area.  Under normal conditions, its simply a great looking and durable shrub.

Ribes americanum should not be confused with Ribes nigrum, the commercially important European/Asian black currant that led to the creation of legislation governing the planting of all Ribes species.  While native Ribes species can act as an alternate host for the fungus White Pine Blister Rust (Cronartium ribicola), their actual impact on white pine plantations is highly variable and largely unpredictable.  The life cycle of the fungus is long and several environmental factors must converge for the fungus to flourish, such as very high densities of both white pine and a Ribes species and long, continuous high-moisture conditions as would be present in rain forests and regions of prolonged high humidity. An excellent research paper exploring the complex relationship between white pines, Ribes, and the fungus can read here.

The U.S. Congress reportedly passed a federal law in 1911 banning the planting of Ribes and that it reportedly repealed in 1966, allowing states to decide the fate of Ribes species (note: we use the term ‘reportedly’ because we could not find the actual bills in online repositories.  If you can find these bills, please e-mail them to mark.brownlee@archewild.com so that we can append them to this article.)

Check your state extension agency for any active legislation concerning the planting of Ribes species.

The Pennsylvania State University Extension says, ”

Legal Restrictions

Confusion often exists about the legality of growing gooseberries and currants since up until 1966 a federal ban prohibited the growth of Ribes. The ban was established because gooseberries and currants can serve as alternate hosts to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), a fungus that needs both Ribes and white pine to complete its life cycle. This federal legislation was rescinded in 1966. In 1933, Pennsylvania passed a law that limited growing gooseberries and currants in certain areas; however, the law is not enforced. Therefore, all Ribes can be grown in the state. If you have white pine nearby, though, you may want to consider growing less-susceptible types of Ribes. Black currant (Ribes nigrum) is by far the most susceptible, and for this reason many areas outside of Pennsylvania still prohibit growing it. Resistant black currant varieties are available. Red and white currants are less susceptible, and gooseberry is the least susceptible.”

New York State passed a law in 2003 that has been erroneously promoted as allowing the widespread planting of currants:

The Laws Of New York Consolidated Laws Environmental Conservation Article 9: Lands And Forests Title 13: Forest Insect And Disease Control

Section 9-1301  White pine blister rust and currant rust

(Excerpt. Read the full bill here.)

For the purpose of suppressing and controlling white pine blister rust and currant rust (Cronartium ribicola), the following provisions shall apply:

1. Certain cultivars of black currant declared a public nuisance. Unless otherwise provided for by this section, the planting, growing, propagating, cultivating, or selling plants, roots, or cuttings of any species of cultivated black currants (Ribes nigrum) other than cultivars that are immune or resistant to white pine blister rust or currant rust is hereby prohibited in this state; provided, however, that the planting, growing, propagating, cultivating, or selling plants, roots or cuttings of any species of cultivated black currants is authorized in all fruiting currant districts or potentially fruiting currant districts. Such unauthorized bushes, roots, cuttings, or plants may be destroyed by the agents of the department.

This New York State law has launched a new black currant growing industry in New York although its future may be questionable with the discovery of a mutated White Pine Blister Rust (Cronartium ribicola) fungus in Connecticut and New Hampshire that seems to attack black currant cultivars that were previously considered immune.  “The deregulation of planting restrictions on Ribes in NY was contingent on the planting of blister rust immune varieties. The breakdown of immunity in ‘Titania’, ‘Consort’, and other immune cultivars is disconcerting as this disease may threaten the pine industry and result in planting regulations on Ribes in the state of NY. The disease causes relatively minor loss in productivity to Ribes, but threatens the longevity of the industry from sociopolitical standpoint. Actions need to be taken to prevent the establishment of populations able to overcome Ribes immunity.” A related article is here.

ArcheWild is currently propagating Ribes americanum grown from Pennsylvania genetic stock for experimentation purposes and is available in limited quantities.

Ribes americanum USDA map.

Ribes americanum range map
Ribes americanum range map

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