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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Plant of the Month (February) : Golden Currant - Ribes aureum

Two-year old Golden Currant (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum
in Mother Nature's Backyard garden

Every garden needs a bit color this time of year.  The locally native currant and gooseberry bushes (genus Ribes) are among the most reliable early bloomers in local gardens.   Our Golden Currant has bloomed now for several weeks and should provide a welcome spot of ‘gold’ for a few more weeks (see above). 

The genus Ribes is a member of the Currant family, the Grossulariaceae.  Some taxonomists have placed Ribes in the Saxifrage family, although its members differ significantly from Saxifragaceae.  Grossulariaceae is notable for woody deciduous shrubs that produce edible berries; the Saxifrages are herbaceous with dry fruits. The current consensus is that Currants and Saxifrages are sister species; and that the Currant family contains a single genus (Ribes),  although some taxonomists place the gooseberries into a separate genus: Grossularia. We’ll have to see how that debate plays out.

The majority of Ribes species are native to the Northern Hemisphere (primarily North America and Asia, but also Europe); species from the Southern Hemisphere are limited to mountainous regions.  Gooseberry species have prickles (thorns) on their stems; currants do not.  Currants and gooseberries are grown commercially for fruit and also used as ornamental shrubs.

There are over 25 different Ribes  species native to California.  Southern California is blessed with several natives, including Ribes aureum var. gracillimum (Golden Currant), Ribes californicum var. hesperium (Hillside currant), Ribes cereum var. cereum (Wax currant); Ribes indecorum (White currant), Ribes malvaceum (Chaparral Currant), Ribes montigenum (Alpine Prickly Current), Ribes nevadense (Sierra currant), Ribes roezlii (Sierra gooseberry), Ribes speciosum (Fuchsia-flowering gooseberry) and Ribes viburnifolium (Island Gooseberry; Catalina perfume). Also commonly grown in local gardens is the showy Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum (Redflowering/Pink currant), native to the Central and Northern California coast.

Most local (Los Angeles county) species grow in the Santa Monica and/or San Gabriel Mountains although some are found on the Southern Channel Islands (Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands).   Our local variety of Golden Currant, Ribes aureum var. gracillimum, grows from Northern California to Northern Mexico, but the parent species is found from Southern Canada (British Columbia to Saskatchewan) to Northern Mexico.   It commonly grows along stream banks and other moist/seasonally moist places in shrubland, woodland and forest communities below 3000 ft (900 meters) elevation. 
Golden currant: shorter in sunnier position (l), more
wand-like along north side of building (r)

Cultivated since the early 1800s  , Golden currant is a woody shrub 4-9 feet tall with a spread of 5-10 feet.  Like all currants, its stems are ‘unarmed’.   Unlike some  local species, Golden currant grows by adding new stems at the base and sprouting from rhizomes (underground stems).  A young plant will have only a few stems – mature plants will have many more.  The actual stem characteristics depend greatly on the amount of light the plant receives (see above).  The stems are shorter, stockier and more erect in sunnier locations and more wand-like in shade.    
Golden currant (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum)
flowers and foliage

Golden currant is stress-deciduous, losing its leaves either during the hot, dry fall (locally) or with the first cold snap.  The leaves are medium green with the three lobes typical of the genus (see photo above).   The leaves become red- or purple tinged – and may become entirely red – in fall.   In fact, they are a good source of fall color, along with ‘Roger’s Red’ California grape (Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’), in local gardens. 

The flowers of Golden currant are a bright, golden yellow – in fact the name ‘aureum’ refers to their golden color.  Plants flower early in the year – as early as  February or even January in our area – and the bloom season is about a month.  In colder areas, bloom season begins in March or April. The flowers of Ribes aureum var. gracillimum often become more red as they age, an added benefit this time of year.

The flowers have five petals and are ‘perfect’ (have both male and female parts).  While individual flowers are small, the drooping floral clusters are quite showy (see above).   The flowers of var. gracillimum have no/little scent, but this doesn’t deter the many pollinators that visit them.  We’ve seen native bees (including Bumblebees), European honeybees and pollinator flies visiting our plant in Mother Nature’s Backyard. 
The most showy visitors (above) are Monarch butterflies and the Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds, both of which are resident in the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve where our garden is located.   Plant any of our native Ribes if you want to attract hummingbirds.  They will fiercely protect their currants and gooseberries from other hummingbirds/insects – and even scold you if they think you’re getting too close!

The fruits of Golden currant are edible – in fact they are among the tastiest of the native currants.   Ripe berries are a translucent orange to red or even dark purple.  You’ll know fruits are ripe when the birds start gobbling them up.  Mockingbirds, Grossbeaks, Robins, Jays, Towhees and others love the fruits.  If you want some for your family’s use you’ll need to be vigilant.  To learn how to pick, clean and save currants see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/08/california-gourmet-preserving-summer.html.  We’ll feature some interesting currant recipes later in the year.

Golden currant is tolerant of a range of environmental conditions, making it a good candidate for gardens.  We particularly recommend var. gracillimum for Southern California because it’s locally native and adapted to our conditions.  It can be grown anywhere from near the coast to the hotter inland and foothill areas.  Plants tolerate full sun only right along the coast.  In most gardens, morning or dappled sun is ideal, although this plant will thrive even in bright shade on the north side of walls or buildings. 
Immature fruit: Golden currant


In general, native currants and gooseberries like well-drained soils.  That being said, many of us successfully grow Golden currant in quite heavy clay soils.   The trick is in the watering, and Ribes aureum var. gracillimum is among the most  tolerant of the native Ribes.    It also tolerates a wide range of soil pH, from slightly acid to alkali.

In a dry winter (like the present one) you’ll be wise to water your Ribes deeply, as currants need their winter moisture.  Golden currant even tolerates winter flooding.  Choose a cool, overcast day and water early or late between hot spells.  In late spring and summer, mature Ribes aureum var. gracillimum can survive on very little water.  We find they look best if given an occasional soaking – perhaps once a month or several times during the summer.  If the leaves are becoming red-tinged, it’s probably time to water.    Be sure to let the soil dry out between waterings; and overhead watering should be avoided.  

Like most Ribes, native or not, Golden currant is susceptible to fungal infections, particularly under warm, moist conditions.  Plants are an alternate host for white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) which infects white pines (those with needles in bundles of five). You can do several things to prevent fungal infections: 1) locate plants in areas with good air circulation; 2) don’t over-water, particularly during warm weather; 3) don’t plant near white pines.

Golden currant is most productive – and looks its best – when pruned as the Native Californians learned to prune it.  Native Californians value native currants as a tasty treat; so in the past, clumps of Ribes aureum were actively managed.   Three-year-old branches are usually past their productive life - pruning out the oldest stems each year will keep your plants neat, healthy and productive.   Start pruning after the second year of growth.  Prune out the oldest 1/3 of the branches (down almost to the ground); then prune out the oldest 1/3 of branches when plants are dormant each fall thereafter.  It is usually easy to tell the oldest stems, even when they are dormant.

Golden current is often used as a shrub in local gardens.  It can be informally espaliered along a wall or fence.  It can even be used for an informal hedge or hedgerow (perhaps with suitable evergreen species).  It doesn’t need much care, so it’s a good choice for hard-to-reach slopes (roots hold the soil) and other ‘challenging’ areas. 

As mentioned above, Golden currant berries are edible, raw or cooked.  They can be used to make pies, tarts, jams, jellies, syrups and cordials.  The flavor is very good.  If planting a native currant for fruit, this is the species to choose.  Native Californians used the inner bark, dried and pulverized or soaked in water, to treat skin infections and sores.

In summary, Golden currant is a great native shrub that provides bright color early in the year, attracts hummingbirds, native pollinators and fruit-eating birds – and provides edible berries.  We hope you’ll consider planting it in your own backyard.


For a gardening information sheet for Golden currant see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/gardening-sheet-ribes-aureum

For more pictures of this plant see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/ribes-aureum-web-show




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



  1. that is GREAT information!!
    Nowhere have I found so thorough a description that will allow me to choose the best location in my hot Sacramento yard. I appreciate that you show the variation in the plant with varied planting position.
    Thank you!

  2. Thank you!! I have just purchased two of these and was trying to determine the best place for them in the yard. Your information was very helpful.

  3. I'm planning my 2017 garden and I'm definitely going to include this among my native collection. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for the wealth of information! What a great way to learn a lot about the plant in a short amount of time.

  5. I have a question about these, I have some plants that are 4 years old and not producing fruit, but I believe all are related (all purchased from same vendor, likely propagated by cuttings so genetically the same). Do you have success with garden plants that are fruiting that are or are not related?

  6. I have grown these in several gardens. In one, it took about 4-5 years for them to start fruiting. I'm really not sure why, but you've got me interested. I'll see if I can find an answer.

  7. I am so happy that I found this site. I have been concerned about my two Golden Currants planting location. Your advice has verified that in my hot, valley location of California, it does need afternoon protection from the sun. I also learned that they need pruning. This is why there haven't been any berries!!! Thank you so much for the great information!