It’s good to have black currants growing in your back garden because they are so versatile for desserts and meat sauces, jams, jellies, juice and liqueur. The fruit has great color and tangy flavor and is an excellent source of vitamin C (4 times that of citrus or blueberries) and antioxidants. Black currants are best cooked either in the microwave or saucepan and will need to be sweetened.
This fruit is widely grown in Northern Europe and less so in Canada and New Zealand. One reason why it is not so well known in the USA is because in 1907 it was discovered that the black currant was a host to white pine blister rust that destroyed the white pines on the East coast. The quarantine on black currant growing was lifted in 1966 when rust-resistant varietals were developed. Today in the Northwest, there are no restrictions on growing black currants.
Black currants belong to the species, Ribes, along with red currants and gooseberries. They are not the same as Zante currants, which are actually small dried grapes that originated in Corinth, Greece; their name was corrupted from the word “Corinth.” Black currant bushes can grow to 4 feet high and fruit is borne on strigs (stems) mostly on second-year, third-year or fourth-year growth. Some varietals have 10 to 15 currants to a strig and one bush can yield about 7 lbs. The bushes are cold hardy; prefer moist soil and temperatures that stay under 90 degrees which is about the same as the Portland climate. During dry spells, they will need to be irrigated.
For backyard planting, allow 4 feet apart if you have that much room. Plant late October or early March, and prune to 2 buds. I still find this hard to do as it means cutting off most of the plant, but it is for the best. I have saved more buds and the result was a leggy bush. The aim of the severe pruning is to develop more shoots from the roots. You will have fruit in late June to the end of July of the second year. After the third or fourth year when your bush will be cropping its best, it is important to prune out old canes to encourage new ones so you keep renewing the bush. If this is not done, productivity will decrease. Pruning should be done each spring before bud break.
Aside from aphids, the only pest that I have encountered is the currant borer, for which there is no good remedy. The larvae of the clear-wing moth develop inside the older wood of the bush and kill the stem. The only thing to do is cut out the affected stem at the base. It’s usually the older wood that is affected and that should be pruned out anyway. Research on control is underway.
Several varieties are available in this area and I recommend Ben Lomond or Black September.