This is the time of year the wild gooseberries bloom. I’m drawn in by the baroque intricacy of the flowers. I love that they’re hairy. I don’t understand how anyone can eat the berries, though. Too prickly.
The variety that grows in my area is Ribes speciosum, the fuchsia-flowering gooseberry–or at least it was called that in 1959, when one of my old Sunset gardening books was printed. (I looked up gooseberries in my most reliable local wild plant book, and found it listed only as Ribes species–along with the three varieties of native wild currants.) I don’t even know why the common name is “gooseberries”. They don’t look remotely gooselike, and a smart goose wouldn’t eat something prickly. If you’ve heard of a story behind that name, please leave a comment: I’d like to know it.
Whatever their botanical i.d., these beautiful little shrubs grow in high shade. They tend to make arching fountain shapes as they get bigger–I’ve never seen one more than four feet high, and often they’re only a foot or two. (The Sunset book says 3-6 feet.) With their beautifully-shaped leaves (evergreen in our climate), they are a pleasure any time of year.
Sometimes wild gooseberries grow in stands, sometimes alone. If you’re lucky enough to have them, cherish them. Though they’re strong, they’re never invasive. They work beautifully on the edge of the garden, where they don’t get too much water.
Because they’re adapted to the dry summers here, the wild gooseberries already growing in my area don’t want water in summer. But if you buy them from a native plant specialist, you will have to water wild gooseberries in for the first year or two. Their roots need to get established–and they need to get hooked up to the secret underground network that wild plants have. (More on that later.)
If you live in an area with wet summers, it’s much simpler to find a wild gooseberry that suits your own climate than to grow the Ribes from my area. Many wild gooseberry varieties like to grow in moist places, so they’d be well-suited to a watered garden. Check with your local native plant society, or ask a local naturalist, the ag department, or a Master Gardener.
In some places, wild gooseberries, and their close relatives, currants, are banned. That’s because of something that happened long ago, a story of the triumph of fungus over human planning.
Over a hundred years ago, wild currants were exterminated in many parts of the eastern U.S. when the woods they grew in were lumbered off. Seeds were sent to Europe for breeding and reintroduction. But the currant seedlings came back infested with blister rust fungus, which damages white pines–an important lumber tree. There’s something poetically apt about that.
Plants (and beings in more debatable categories, such as fungus) can kill each other. But they are also vital to each other.
Using their web of underground fungus connections (mycorrhizae), wild plants send each other nutrients and water at need, so that the whole community thrives. Proving once again that people who think science is all about competition and survival of the fittest are only projecting their own myths on the world. Competition is a part of nature, but without cooperation, the world couldn’t exist at all.
Sunset Western Garden Book (first edition), Lane Publishing Co., 1959