Ribes, the currants and gooseberries, is a genus of about 160 species of usually deciduous low-growing shrubs in the Grossulariaceae (currant and gooseberry genus, although in many classifications formerly included in Saxifragaceae), mostly native to and widely distributed in the north temperate regions of North America and Eurasia (although a few species extend into the Andean region of South America). The genus includes several species of currants and gooseberries widely cultivated for the fruit and as ornamentals. In the wild, fruits many Ribes species are important food sources for numerous species of birds and mammals, and were a vital food source for native peoples as well. Many species are still wild-harvested.
Ribes, which is sometimes separated into two genera, with Grossularia containing the prickly-fruited gooseberry species, may grow to 3 m (10 ft) or more in height, but most species are 1.0 to 2.5 m (3 to 8 feet), often with spines or prickles (or both), although some are unarmed. The leaves are alternate, although often clustered, and simple, but usually palmately lobed, with more or less prominent palmate veins. The small tubular 5-parted flowers, which range in color from white to green or greenish yellow to red or purple, are borne in small to large clusters. Flowers may be bisexual, or some species are dioecious (with male and female flowers on separate plants). The fruit is a juicy berry (a soft fleshy fruit with several to many soft seeds embedded in the pulp), with the remains of the calyx (flowering parts) persisting at the end. The surface of the berry may be glabrous (smooth, lacking hairs), in which case it is generally referred to as a currant, or may have glandular or prickly hairs covering the surface, and is then called a gooseberry.
While Ribes has several commercially important species of currants, the fruits widely sold as “Zante currants” are not from this genus, but are actually a seedless cultivar of species of grape, Vitis vinifera.
The species of Ribes are widely cultivated for their fruit include the following: R. nigrum, blackcurrant; R. rubrum, redcurrant, R. odoratum, buffalo or Missouri currant; R. sativum, common or garden currant; and R. hirtellum and R. uva-crispa, gooseberry. Among the species cultivated as ornamentals are R. aureum (golden currant), R. odoratum, R. speciosum (fuschia-flowered currant, which has evergreen foliage), and R. viburnifolium (also with evergreen foliage).
Ribes species were widely targeted in eradication campaigns in many northern U.S. states during the 1930s through 1950s, after it was discovered that they were an alternate host for white pine blister rust, Cronartium ribicola, a fungal disease that affects the commercially important white pine, Pinus strobus. Forest managers removed probably millions of individuals various wild Ribes species, and prohibited limit planting of cultivated species in areas near white pine stands. Although studies conducted in national forests in the 1960s suggested that removing Ribes made no difference in the incidence of the blister rust in pine stands, Ribes remains listed as a noxious weed in Michigan and is restricted in Maine.
(Bailey et al. 1976, Carlson 1978, Flora of China 2003, Michigan Flora Online 2011, USDA PLANTS 2012, van Wyk 2005.)