Plant of the Week
Golden Currant (Ribes aureum)
By Walter Fertig
The genus Ribes contains nearly 150 species of low, woody shrubs found across the Northern Hemisphere and the Andes of South America. Ribes species with spiny stems are commonly called gooseberries and often placed in their own genus, Grossularia, which is also the root of the family name, Grossulariaceae. True Ribes lack spines or bristles on the stems and are often called currants. According to Colorado botanist William Weber, the term currant comes from “Zante Currant” or the “raisins of Corinth” for the resemblance of the fruit to grapes grown on the Greek island of Corinth.
Golden currant (Ribes aureum) is a non-spiny shrub with stems 4-5 feet tall and mostly three-lobed, maple-like leaves. The sweetly scented flowers are tubular and golden-yellow when fresh, but turn orangish to violet with age. The appearance of the blossoms in late March or early April is often one of the first signs of spring in many parts of the country. Found in roadside ditches, fencerows, thickets, montane meadows, and streamsides, Golden currant ranges from southern Canada to California, Arizona, South Dakota, and western Texas. Introduced as a garden plant in the 19th Century, it has also become naturalized in western and central Europe.
Also known as Buffalo currant, Ribes aureum and its close relative, Ribes odoratum of the Great Plains were an important food source for the Plains Indians. The bluish-black fruits were eaten fresh or dried and mixed with dried buffalo meat or venison to make pemmican. The berries can also be converted into jams and jellies. Numerous animal species consume the fruits and nectar-loving birds such as orioles have been observed eating the flowers.
The colorful flowers of Ribes aureum have an unusual composition. The elongated tube is formed from fusion of the petals and sepals into a structure called a hypanthium. The five large, golden-yellow, petal-like lobes spreading at a right angle from the rim of the hypanthium are technically sepals, while the smaller, erect yellowish to red petals point straight up and alternate with the five stamens. Other plant families characterized by the presence of a hypanthium include the Rosaceae and Saxifragaceae, both of which are considered closely related to the Grossulariaceae.
Many Ribes species can serve as alternate hosts for fungus that causes white pine blister rust in five-needled or white pines. In many areas, it is unlawful to plant certain types of Ribes where white pines are harvested for timber. For more than 40 years, the federal government actively controlled Ribes populations in western forests and national parks in an effort to contain the spread of white pine blister rust fungi, but the program was eventually halted in the 1970s after showing minimal success.