Red currant, (or redcurrant), Ribes rubrum is a member of the Gooseberry family, Grossulariaceae . Its fruits are edible and it is relatively easy to recognise and distinguish from other species.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Red currant is native to parts of Western Europe but is also widely cultivated, with some wild populations being formed by naturalised escapees.
Red currant tends to grow in isolated but dense stands. It is typically found on river banks and in damp, shady deciduous woodland, often associating with Alder, Alnus glutinosa. In the UK the species is widely distributed but grows most commonly in the southern half of England.
The plant is an upright deciduous shrub, typically growing 1.0 – 1.5m in height, sometimes up to 2.0m.
Stem and Leaves
It has a woody stem and bluntly-toothed, palmate leaves with 3 to 5 lobes, somewhat reminiscent of a maple leaf.
The flowers, which are present April to May, are a fairly uninspiring yellowy-green, small and not particularly noticeable. The flowers themselves and the racemes they grow in help identify them as Ribes though.
In clusters of up to 20 shiny berries – at first green then bright red – drooping strings of fruit form where the flowers once were. The fruits are round, almost spherical and 6-10mm in diameter. They have translucent skin and you can sometimes see the pips inside. Like gooseberries they have ribs like lines of longitude on a globe.
Edibility and Nutritional Value of Red Currant, Ribes rubrum
The berries are edible. They are sweet, being a good source of glucose, fructose and sucrose but also rather tart. They are quite acidic containing, amongst other acids, a significant amount of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), with a concentration of about 40mg/100g fruit. Also of nutritional interest is red currants containing a significant amount of pyridoxine (one of the chemicals that can be called Vitamin B6).
The fruits are typically ripe in July and into August. Birds and small mammals are fond of them and the berries usually quickly disappear as they become ripe. They are easily collected and make a great wayside treat.
If you are collecting to take some home, there are all manner of recipes which incorporate red currants to choose from.
Other species similar to red currant, Ribes rubrum
Black currants, Ribes nigrum, are much less common than red currants but the plants look very similar. Without the berries present, you can tell the difference between red currants and black currants by the smell of the leaves. Black currant leaves smell strongly of black currant cordial, while red currant leaves are unscented and just smell “green”.
It should be noted that the guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, despite growing to a much larger size than red currant plants, is also a shrub with lobed leaves and red berries. Therefore there is some potential for confusion. Guelder rose can also grow in the same habitat – I have certainly seen guelder rose growing alongside red currants in a damp alder wood. Unripe berries or a large number of ripe berries are mildly poisonous and can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
Apart from the difference in stature of the shrubs, guelder rose fruits grow in bunches more like elderberries, Sambucus nigra and the individual fruits themselves have opaque skin and look more waxy than redcurrants as well as lacking a “tail”.
How is it near you?
If you’ve found red currants while you’ve been out and about recently, let me and other readers know: Are they ripe where you are? Has it been a good crop there too?
Improve Your Tree and Plant Identification Skills
Would you like to improve your ability to identify useful trees and plants? I offer an online tree and plant identification course, which flows through the seasons. Find out more about the next available course by clicking the following link: Paul Kirtley’s Tree and Plant Identification Masterclass
Best Practice while Foraging
Please read the BSBI’s Code of Conduct for the Conservation and Enjoyment of Wild Plants for guidance on the best practice (and UK laws) relating to foraging for wild plant foods.
This article is meant only as a guide and is largely a record of my recent forages. It is not a complete treatment of all edible plants that might be available. Nor does it provide a complete treatment of all poisonous plants that may also be present in the habitat where you find the above-mentioned plants. If you want to learn more about plant identification you should invest in some good field guides. The safest way to learn about edible wild plants is for someone who already has the knowledge to show you in person. Any foraging you do on your own is at your own risk.
The most important thing to remember when identifying wild foods is:
IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT!
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