Growing wild throughout Canada and the Northeastern United States, currant was foraged by Native Americans and Early Settlers; there are records of recipes from the 1700s for venison hash with currant jelly, and indigenous peoples prepared beechnut currant cakes with corn meal and maple syrup. Native Americans embraced both the medicinal and dye properties of the fruit, using currant to treat snakebites, urinary trouble, and miscarriages, as well as to promote blood clotting and ease menstrual pain. In the realm of modern medicine, currant juice is said to help cleanse the system, purify the blood, and fight kidney and nervous system problems.
Trade ships brought cultivated currant varieties to the United States in the 1600s and 1700s; Prince Nurseries in Long Island, New York became the first nursery to offer currant for sale in 1770. In 1882, the New York Agricultural Experiment Station was established in Geneva, NY, and with it an active breeding program for currant.
Ribes are a very diverse genus, with over 100 different varieties that differ in plant size, form, fruit flavor, shape, texture, color, structure, and productivity. Around 50 of those varieties are known as Gooseberries, and the rest are called Currants, The small round berries vary in flavor and sweetness, the spectrums of sweet and tart. Red and white varieties are sprightly and refreshing and are often used fresh, like in sauces. The black varieties can be a bit more robust, sweet tart, aromatic, and resin-y, and are often processed, like for juices and jellies. Although tart, they can even be enjoyed out of hand.
The Perfection is a red currant variety that disseminated rapidly in New York. It is vigorous, hardy, upright, and productive, with large clusters of clear red fruit of pleasing flavor. First introduced by Charles G. Hooker of Rochester, New York in 1887.
Through the early 1900s, Black and Red currants were widely grown in the US and Canada. But the fate of the currants took a turn for the worse when a fungus that caused White Pine Blister Rust (Cronatium ribicola) was imported to the New World on infected pine seedlings. This fungus requires two alternating hosts in order to complete its life cycle: any of several 5 needle pines including the White Pine, and any susceptible genotype of ribes.
By 1911, the disease had been reported in most of the Northeast. The Federal government issued a Quarantine Act in the 1920s against the importation and cultivation of ribes plants. The program continued into the 1940s, but the Federal quarantine was rescinded in 1966, leaving individual states to maintain or eliminate ribes restrictions. Since then, many states have rescinded or modified their restrictions, because wild ribes are widespread, and cultivar gooseberries and red/white currants are not very susceptible and thus are poor disease hosts.
In New York, Greg Quinn of Walnut Grove Farm in the Hudson Valley championed the restoration of currant production. Quinn researched the science behind the ban, finding fault. With the support of the Cornell Cooperative Extension and $80,000 in funding from Grow New York and Northeast SARE, he ran a feasibility study on restarting production in the region, and used the positive conclusions to convince several senators to sponsor a bill to overturn the state currant ban."This little berry may give New York the opportunity to market an agricultural crop as uniquely its own as Idaho potatoes, Iowa pork, Florida oranges and Washington State apples," Quinn said.
Quinn established a management company to assist landowners who want to have their land cultivated and planted with currants, and he provides cuttings to both farms and backyard gardeners. Lee Reich PhD, has been growing, promoting, and studying currants since the 1908's in the Hudson Valley, and has provided education and consulting, as well as currant plants for backyard gardeners. With education and support from the Cornell New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, farmers can open land and build successful economic ventures.
Many more fruit farms have recently been established in the Hudson Valley, most notably leading to more grapes and wineries. In 2015, currant wines, liqueurs, and cassis (mostly using black currants) were fast becoming something of a specialty in the Hudson Valley.
Poised for success and ripe with opportunity, the currant is a symbol of a vibrant horticultural future for the New York region.
The Image by Dr. Kim Hummer, USDA. Available: National Plant Germplasm System
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