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Monday, January 9, 2017

Plant of the Month (January) : Catalina perfume / Evergreen currant – Ribes viburnifolium

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium): Mother Nature's Backyard

January is the dead of winter. While most S. California gardens aren’t covered in snow, this is still the coldest and wettest time of the year.  So we treasure any plant that dares bloom in January.  One of our early bloomers, Ribes viburnifolium (pronounced RIE-bees (or REE-bees) vi-bur-ni-FO-lee-um), is flowering right now in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  We urge you to come and see it!

Ribes viburnifolium is also known commonly as the Evergreen currant, Island currant, Catalina currant, Island gooseberry and Santa catalina island currant.    It’s a surprising member of the Gooseberry family (Grossulariaceae), which contains many of our common edible berry bushes.  Catalina perfume looks and behaves differently from other native currants/gooseberries; but it’s a wonderful plant in its own right.

Catalina perfume is endemic to only two places: Santa Catalina Island (one of the S. California Channel Islands) and near the border of San Diego County and Baja California, Mexico.  Island species – and those separated from main populations in other ways – often differ from their nearest relatives.  Isolation can be a powerful force in the development of new species.   So we shouldn’t be surprised that Ribes viburnifolium differs from other local Ribes.   The cultivar Ribes viburnifolium  ‘Spooner’s Mesa’, which has slightly larger leaves, is derived from the San Diego population.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA
In the wilds, Catalina perfume is a fairly uncommon plant, growing in shady canyons and slopes, often quite near the ocean. Ribes viburnifolium is a member of the chaparral community.  It rarely occurs above about 1000 ft. (300 m.) elevation,    making it suitable for lowland Los Angeles County gardens.  In nature, it often grows in the shade of Lemonadeberry, Sugar bush and other shrubs.  This hints at its most effective uses in the garden.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 young plant
Evergreen currant is an evergreen sub-shrub (part-woody) that grows 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) tall and up to 8 or 12 feet (2 ½ to 3 ½ m.) wide.  In sunnier locations it may be slightly taller and more upright; in shady locations it’s more of a woody groundcover.  The slender stems are arching or sprawling; where they touch bare ground they may root.  These characteristics make Ribes viburnifolium a popular native shady groundcover.  But the plant is versatile and can also be pruned as an upright shrub if that’s desired.
Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium): leaves
The leaves of Catalina perfume are simple, rounded, medium green and one to one and a half inches (2-4 cm) in diameter.  In sunnier locations, leaves often have a thick waxy coating, giving the upper surface a shiny appearance.  In shady spots, the leaf surface will often appear less shiny. 

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 leaf glands
The leaves are covered with small, bumpy yellow glands. These glands (glandular trichomes) secrete the aromatic resins for which the plant is named.  After a rain – or when the leaves are rubbed – they release a fragrance that is pleasant, but difficult to describe.  It has hints of pine, some apple or grape, and perhaps a touch of vinegar.  Anyway, impossible to describe, but a wonderfully refreshing scent.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
The young bark of Ribes viburnifolium is red to red-brown and contrasts beautifully with the green foliage.  The foliage attributes – and the ability to tolerate shade – have made this plant a popular ground cover for shady slopes and under trees.  It is widely available throughout S. California, from nurseries offering native plants.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
Catalina perfume’s flowers are pleasing in a sweet, old-fashioned way.  Unfortunately, they are so small (less than ½ inch) that you may miss them amongst the foliage.  But hummingbirds will let you know that something good is blooming!   Ribes viburnifolium is a winter or early spring bloomer.  It may bloom as early as January/February or as late as April in western Los Angeles County.  The flowers are evenly spaced on short (1-3 inch) flowering stalks (see above). 

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 close-up of flowers
The flowers are worth a closer look.  Their overall color is reddish-brown or reddish purple.  The color is mostly provided by the prominent sepals, which are much larger and showier than the petals (see above).  The anthers (male sex organs) and pollen are white and showy – extending out beyond the sepals.  This is a hummingbird flower: red color, sweet scent and distinctive floral architecture.  But the flowers also attract bees and butterflies.  In fact, this plant can be an important food source for all these pollinators in winter.

Like other Ribes species, Ribes viburnifolium produces edible fruits.  They are small, red, currant-type fruits – quite pretty, though uncommon on our bushes.  We’ll try to get some pictures this year.  The fruits are not the tastiest of our native Ribes, and most gardeners just leave them for the birds.
Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 under Live oak, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA
Catalina perfume is not picky about soil texture; we’ve had good success in very sandy and clay soils.  If your pH is above 8.0 (alkali soil) you may want to consider another species, but this plant is pretty adaptable otherwise.  It does need some shade and probably looks best in bright shade under trees.  At any rate, be sure it gets at least afternoon shade in S. California; it will grow fine in quite shady locations, though flowering will likely be less.

Catalina perfume does not tolerate extreme heat, so it’s a better choice for western S. California than for hot, inland areas.   Once established, Ribes viburnifolium is fairly drought tolerant; you can even grow it under summer-dry native oaks (see above).  It looks best with moderate to occasional water – 1 to 2 times a month in most S. California summer gardens.  It is fine in areas that get a little overspray from lawns or other regularly watered areas.  And it won’t need any added fertilizer unless you grow it in a container (if so, give a single dose of half-strength fertilizer in early spring).

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium)
So why consider Ribes viburnifolium for your own garden?  If you have a shady slope – or need a groundcover for a shady spot under trees or in the side yard – Catalina perfume is an easy care, native alternative to invasive ivy, star jasmine or non-native honeysuckles. It’s a great plant for erosion control.  Just water occasionally, trim back as needed, and that’s about it.  This plant is more than acceptable for front yards; your most persnickety neighbors won’t even guess it’s a native!

If you need a small shrub for a shady spot, start shaping Ribes viburnifolium the first year.  It can be kept to a quite serviceable size with routine pruning.  We haven’t yet grown it in a container, but are considering trying it on a shady porch. We love the idea of being able to reach over and rub the scented leaves.  We’ll update with pictures in a year or so.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 shady garden
And if you worry about having winter flowers for hummingbirds and other pollinators, this is a superior choice to many of the non-native groundcovers.  You’ll also be helping to maintain a plant that’s rare – even threatened – in the wild.   And that may be reason enough to plant this wonderful island native!

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html


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


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