THE BUSH FRUITS CHAPTER VIII
THE EVOLUTION OF CULTIVATED CURRANTS
The currant was not grown in the gardens of the ancients, and no plant which answered to its description is to be found in agricultural literature until late in the Middle Ages. This is not strange, for, as has been set forth in the discussion of species, all species from which cultivated currants come are inhabitants of northern climates where agriculture was late in getting a start. The early Greek and Roman gardeners could have imported seeds or plants from northern regions, or from mountain ranges where currants grow in the south, and possibly they did, but the currant is a cool climate plant and will not prosper on the shores of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the plants and fruits are too small, and the taste of the currants too tart to attract cultivators north or south in the early stages of agriculture, when fruits were little appreciated and the more luscious tree fruits were to be had.
The name currant is derived from Corinth, an ancient city in Greece, and was first used to designate a small grape exported from the region about Corinth as a dried fruit. The name is still used for this grape and the dried currant of commerce is a grape, the trade name of which is now Zante currant. The similarity of the fruits of the cultivated species of Ribes to this grape accounts for the name, which in early English texts had several forms, as corinthes, corans, currans, bastarde corinthes, and so on to the present form. The name most commonly used in Early English is corans, the first use of which is attributed to Lord Bacon, 1561-1626. The Italians have ever known this fruit as Uvetta (little grape).
Currants are roughly divided by pomologists in three groups, in accordance with the colors of the fruit, red, white, and black sorts. Red and white currants belong to the same species, the white sorts being horticultural varieties of the wild red species, although white forms are sometimes found in feral plants. White currants differ from the red sorts only in color of fruit, all other characters of plant and product being the same. Pink, salmon-colored, and sorts with berries alternately striped with red and white, are known. The black currant belongs to a distinct species and will be so treated.
The currant was probably first cultivated as a common garden plant in Holland, Denmark, and the coastal plains about the Baltic. Certainly it has long been and still is a favorite fruit in these regions. Several names of old varieties of red currants bespeak a Dutch origin, and an old French name, still current in parts of France, groseillier (Toutre trier (currant from over the sea) may mean that the plant was brought to France from beyond the Baltic, the northern sea. Species of currants from which cultivated currants have been derived, it is true, grow wild in northern France, Germany, and Austria, but neither wild nor cultivated do the fruits attain the size and quality of more northern plants, and in competition with the tree fruits of these countries would scarcely attract attention.
The red currant first appears in English agricultural literature at the close of the sixteenth century. Gerarde in his Herball or General Historie of Plants, 1597, seems to be the earliest English writer to notice the currant as a garden plant but calls them gooseberries and not currants. He says1, writing of gooseberries: "We have also in our London gardens another sort altogether without pfickes, whose fruit is verie small, lesser by much than the common kinde, but of a perfect red colour, wherein it differeth from the rest of his kinde." Surely this plant is a currant and not a gooseberry. Thomas Tusser in his several editions of Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandries 1557-1580, in which it is supposed that every food plant then cultivated in England is listed, does not include the currant.
Curiously enough the next reference to the currant in English agricultural records has to do with sending plants to America. In a memorandum of the Massachusetts Company, dated March 16, 1629, the interests of the colony in the New World are thus prepared for:2 "To provide to send for New England, Vyne Planters, Stones of all sorts of fruites, as peaches, plums, filberts, cherries, pear, aple, quince kernells, pomegranats, also wheate, rye, barley, oates, woad, saffron, liquorice seed, and madder rootes, potatoes, hop rootes, currant plants." It appears from future accounts that these seeds and plants having been sent over, most of them grew, and we may assume that the currant, as easy to propagate as any, was thus introduced in America.
Rea, in his justly esteemed Flora, Ceres et Pomona, 1665, is the next English writer after Parkinson to give attention to the currant. He devotes a chapter to this fruit under its generic name Ribes. In it three items of interest are to be noted: The beginning of the use of the word " currans;" early mention of the Red Dutch and White Dutch varieties; and the use of division rather than of cuttings in propagation. The chapter follows:1
"Corinthes, or Currans, as they are vulgarly called, are Plants well known unto all; of these there are five several sorts, which differ chiefly (as the Goosberries) in the Berries.
" The small black Curran is not worth the Planting.
" The small red Curran is of no better esteem.
" The great red Curran is a plentiful bearer, the Berries twice as big as those of the former, of a bright shining red colour, and good (though something sharp) taste.
" The greatest dark red Dutch Curran differs from the last, in that the Berries are bigger, of a more blackish colour, and sweeter taste.
" The white Curran is like the great red, onely the Berries are something lesser, white, transparent, and well-tasted.
"They are as easily increased as Goosberries by Suckers, parting the roots or laying the branches; these may be budded one upon another, and so several sorts grow from one Stock, as is said of the Goosberries"
Batty Langley in his Pomona, 1729, gives a short chapter to the discussion of gooseberries and currants, the title of which is: Of Gooseberries and Currants, or Corinths, so called from Corinthia whence they first came. Thus, Langley adds to the confusion of the currant and Corinth raisin. Of more importance, however, is the fact that this is the first spelling of currant as the word is now spelled at least in the well-known pomologies of the eighteenth century. Langley names but two varieties, the Red and White Dutch. In his day currants were still propagated by division or by layering.
The next pomology of much worth was that of Mawe, whose dictionary of gardening and botany was published in 1778, fifty years after Langley's Pomona appeared. Mawe names ten currants but four of these are either ornamentals or curiosities grown for their foliage. The six edible varieties are: Common Small Red Currant, Long-bunched Red Currant, Champaigne Pale-red Currant, Common Small White Currant, Large Red Dutch Currant, and Large White Dutch Currant. These names indicate that some of the varieties were similar to others, and then as now gardeners complained that they could not buy sorts true to name. Currants were at this time, probably for some years before, propagated from cuttings, although suckers and layers are still recommended.
Phillips in his Pomarium Britannicum, 1820, may be quoted to show the purposes for which currants were chiefly grown a hundred years ago as compared with the present. They were less esteemed then to eat out of hand than for medicinal and beverage purposes. Thus Phillips4 says:
"At the dessert, they are greatly esteemed, being found cooling and grateful to the stomach; and they are as much admired for their transparent beauty, as for their medicinal qualities, being moderately refrigerant, antiseptic, attenuant, and aperient. They may be used with advantage to allay thirst in most febrile complaints, to lessen an increased secretion of bile, and to correct a putrid and scorbutic state of the fluids, especially in sanguine temperaments: but in constitutions of a contrary kind, they are apt to occasion flatulency and indigestion. Brookes says, they strengthen the stomach, excite appetite, and are good against vomiting." And again:5
" The wine made from the white currants, if rich of fruit, so as to require little sugar, is, when kept to a proper age, of a similar flavour to the Grave and Rhenish wines; and I have known it preferred as a summer table wine. Even in London this agreeable beverage may be made at less expence than moderate cider can be bought for. Diluted in water, this wine is an excellent drink in the hot season, particularly to those of feverish habits. It makes an excellent shrub; and the juice is a pleasant acid in punch, which, about thirty years back, was a favourite beverage in the coffee-houses in Paris."
Phillips names the red and white currant as the kinds cultivated in 1820, but says " the salmon color, or champaigne, is cultivated for variety." Other varieties were to be found, however, as we shall see in the next paragraphs.
In the Catalogue of Fruits
cultivated in the Garden of the Horticultural Society of London, 1826,
35 species and varieties of currants are named, but judging from the
names not more than 20 of these are inhabitants of fruit gardens, and
some of these are of doubtful standing, as the catalog makes the
following statement, true now as then:6
"There is perhaps no class of fruits in which so much ignorance exists of the merits and differences of the varieties, as the Red and White Currants of the Gardens. It is impossible to obtain the different kinds with certainty from the Nurseries, although there is no doubt that their respective qualities are of much importance." The sorts are: Common Red, Large Red, Large Bunched Red, Long Bunched Red, Morgan's Red, Red Dutch, Red DutchLarge, Red Dutch New, Red Grape, Wilmot's Pale Red, Champagne, Common White, Jeeves's White, Morgan's White, Pearl White, Small White, Speary's White, White Crystal, White Dutch, White DutchNew, White Leghorn.
One suspects from these names that the list is somewhat padded and that not half of the number are distinct sorts. Hogg in 1866 includes all of these names under six varieties. In the twenty names, only two are familiar to currant growers today, Red and White Dutch.
Taking another casual dip in British pomology at a still later date we find that Hogg, 1866, describes nine varieties of red currants, six of which are put on a select list. At least three of the six recommended sorts are more than a hundred years old and two, Red and White Dutch, go back to the very beginning of currant culture in England and on the continent. Up until this time those who had sought to improve plants had given the currant scant attention, although three of Hogg's nine varieties were originated by Thomas Andrew Knight, England's premier breeder of fruits.
The history of the currant on the continent of Europe parallels that of this fruit in England. There are, however, earlier references on the continent than those given from English books. E. L. Sturtevant, a former director of this Station, and a careful student of early agricultural literature, has left voluminous notes on the history of cultivated esculents. The paragraph that follows is taken from Sturtevant's notes (Western New York Horticultural Society Proceedings, page 56, 1887) and possibly presents as good an account of the early cultivation of this fruit as can be found.
11 By the herbalists and early writers on horticulture, the first mention of the currant that I find, is by Ruellius8 in 1536, a French author, who praises it as a border plant, and its fruit as an appetizer. In 1539, Ammonius9 says " we cherish it in our gardens," but adds nothing of further interest in this connection. Fuchsius10 in 1542 gives a figure which may be called a poor specimen of the Common Red, and which resembles certain seedlings which are now frequently obtained. He notes its occurrence in gardens passim. Tragus,11 who wrote in Germany in 1552, gives a figure of the garden currant, which may well be the Common Red. In 1558, Matthiolus12 refers to it as common in gardens, and it is also spoken of by Mizaldus13 in 1560. Pinaeus,14 1561, gives a figure which may be that of a Common Red, while Lobel15 in 1576 and 1591 offers figures which are to be called Common Red, but which are of a far better appearance than those heretofore figured, and mentions also a sweet kind. Lytes translation of Dodoeus, edition of 1586, speaks of the currant in England, but translates one name as l beyond the sea ' gooseberry. This same year 1586, Came-rarius16 figures the Common Red, as does Dalechamp17 in 1587. The next year, Camerarius18 gives directions for sowing the seed of the wild plant in gardens, and says these seedlings quickly come to fruit. We have hence the first clue as to how new varieties might originate, if this recommendation was generally followed. Camerarius also refers to a larger fruited currant than common, that was growing in the gardens of the Archduke of Austria, and this is the first indication I can note of improvement in varieties, such as might well be anticipated from the practice of growing seedlings. This ' Ribes baccis rubris majoribus' may perhaps be considered as the Red Dutch variety, or at least its prototype. In 1597, Gerarde,19 as before stated, scarcely recognized the currant as being in general culture in England, but the next year, or 1598, brings us to what may well be called a picture of the Red Dutch variety, given in Bauhin's edition of Matthiolus, as also a mention of a white fruited variety, and another described as ' sweet.' "
Sturtevant's history of the currant begins with Ruellius, 1536, a French author. De Candolle, without question the best authority on edible plants who has yet written, also gives Ruellius credit of being the first writer on plants to mention the currant as cultivated. But Bunyard, 1917 (Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society pages 260-270, 1917) who reviews the botanical, garden, and historical literature of this fruit, tells us that the currant is mentioned in a German MS. of the early fifteenth century and that there is a very good discussion of a red currant in the Mainz Herbarius of 1484. It does not follow that the plant was as yet domesticated, but since certain medical qualities had been ascribed to it, it is probable that it was grown in the herb garden at this time if not in the kitchen garden.
Bunyard, in his admirable history of the currant in the reference cited, also gives dates and details as to the introduction of the several species of currants but into this we cannot go other than in the references accompanying the botanical descriptions in the chapter on Systematic Botany of the Currant.
There is little of interest or of profit to the pomologist in the history of the currant in America. The earliest English settlers in Massachusetts, as we have seen, brought this fruit to the new country. Probably the sorts brought were the Red and White Dutch, and the fact that after three hundred years we still grow these varieties is significant, there have been few attempts to improve the currant in America. The list of American varieties is now larger than that of Europe, not because of the efforts of plant breeders, but because the currant is grown over a vastly greater territory here than in Europe, and new varieties have originated by chance in the varied environments.
The Prince Nurseries, Flushing, Long Island, in 1770 offered to gardeners three varieties, Large Red, Large White, and Large Black. In 1790 this nursery was selling the same sorts. McMahon, in his American Gardener's Calendar, 1806, names the Common Red, Large Red, Pale White Dutch, Large White, and White Crystal, but without description so that we cannot know what they were. His directions for pruning, propagating, and culture would answer excellently for currant culture in the modern industry. McMahon tells his readers that currants may be "raised from seed and improved sorts obtained thereby". Would that we could take the date of this advice as the beginning of currant breeding in America, but intelligent sowing of seed with the selection of seedlings seems not to have been begun in the case of the currant in this country for another half century.
Prince, the next pomological writer to mention currants, in his Treatise on Horticulture, 1828, names seven kinds, all European, and although there are no descriptions, the seven names, following English descriptions, stand for but four distinct varieties. Downing in The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, 1845, describes eight varieties, not counting the Common Red and the Common White, which he says " are totally undeserving a place in the garden, when those very superior sorts, the White and Red Dutch, can be obtained/' White Dutch at this time was grown under five other names and Red Dutch was listed under eight besides its true one. Downing's book was revised in 1857 when twenty-five varieties were thought worthy brief descriptions all from Europe.
The first American student of varieties of currants to publish was Andrew S. Fuller, in whose The Small Fruit Culturist, 1867, we find an admirable discussion, with very good descriptions, of the currants grown in America. Twenty-eight varieties are listed with some forty-odd synonyms. There is, as in all lists of currants from the first to the last, much confusion in the nomenclature, and Fuller now makes an honest effort to set currant growers straight as to correct names. He describes two sorts of American origin, Buist's Long-bunched Red, and Dana's White. Neither are now, or ever were, of much value. Fuller relates an experience in obtaining Dana's White that many collectors of currants could duplicate with other varieties. He says that he obtained, from what he supposed to be reliable sources, five distinct varieties under this name.
Perhaps the next noteworthy contribution to our knowledge of American-grown currants is found in a publication from this Station. As early as 1882, the first year of the Station's existence, the beginning of a collection of currants was made by the planting of twelve kinds. By 1890 this number had increased to twenty-odd varieties, all but two of which were old European sorts. Now, however, a rapid development in currant improvement began to take place. Between 1890 and 1895, fifteen currants, all of American origin, were added to the collection. True, some of these did not come into prominence but others, as Wilder, North Star, Red Cross, Eclipse, Ruby, and Pomona, made their appearance in this period as sorts worthy widespread cultivation. The first account of these studies of the currant at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station appeared in Bulletin 95, 1895, since which, until the present work, the currant and its varieties have had but occasional mention.
The next survey of the varieties of currants grown in the United States appears in Card's Bush-Fruits, 1898. Card lists 58 varieties of red and white currants with histories and descriptions as full as the data obtainable permitted. Of these, 25 probably originated in America. Not all of them, by any means, are under cultivation. Some of the names are synonyms. A good many of the varieties, as Card says, have only received mention or have been little known in the United States. This list includes only varieties cultivated in America.
The most thorough study of cultivated currants made in America up to date is that of Paul Thayer, the results of which are published in Ohio Station Bulletin No. 371, The Red and White Currants, 1923. Thayer grew "more than 200 lots under 100 names." These, after much critical study, he resolves into 41 major and about 180 minor varieties, of which he gives for each the botany, origin, history, and a full description, Thayer's studies also include the botany of the currant, both structural and systematic. All in all, it is the most notable pomological monograph yet published on the currant.
This brings us to the present work. In The Small Fruits of New York, 185 currants are described; of which 109 kinds have originated on this side of the Atlantic. The confusion in names and varieties is so great and of so long standing that duplication is unavoidable, and so many of the varieties described no longer exist that probably not a quarter of those described can now be obtained in American and European nurseries. Not more than eighteen or twenty varieties are cultivated in America, and less than half of these are of commercial importance. The acreage and yield of currants in America are shown by the figures in Tables taken from the last census.
Table 3. Acreage, Yield and Value of Currants in the United States in 1919, by Divisions
Division and State
East North Central. West North Central
East South Central. West South Central.
East North Central:
Table 3 (Concluded)
Division and State
Yield (in quarts)
West North Central:
South Atlantic-Delaware ...........
District of Columbia.
East South Central:
West South Central:
247 95 25
2 11 61
55.134 32,147 21,436
320 .532 59 .471 ,886
144 239 406
1 Reported in small fractions.
THE BLACK CURRANT
The evolution of the black currant proceeds step by step with that of the red currant. The early herbalists, botanists, and pomologists who describe and give cultural directions for red and white currants usually include the blacks in their accounts. These writers paid quite as much or more attention to the medicinal qualities of the products about which they wrote than to their food value, and the black currant, having a most marked taste and odor, was supposed to possess many virtues as a medicine and as such was in common use in nearly all northern countries of Europe. In Great Britain it was called the "squinancy berry" because of its common use in quinsy. Many of the early writers mention it only as a medicine. One of the old herbalists describes the fruit as "of a stinking and somewhat loathing savour," a characteristic still so marked that few would attempt to eat the fruit as a dessert. It is now and has ever been used as medicine, to make wine and other liquors, for jellies, jams, and for flavoring.
The geographical range of the black currant is about the same as that of the wild and cultivated red currants but if anything a little more northern. Only northern peoples seem to care for the fruit and its products. The black currant is little liked in France or southern Germany, but to the north of these regions and in northern Russia it is a rather common fruit. The farther north, the less disagreeable the odor and taste, and the larger the currants. We may assume, therefore, that its earliest culture was in some of the northern countries of Europe and that it was brought into gardens at about the same time and by the same people who first undertook the culture of the red currant. The Scotch and English seem fond of the fruit and nearly all of the varieties known to Americans came from Great Britain.
The black currant is little grown in America. Few Americans born in the country have tasted the fruit, or ever having done so care for a second taste. The product is almost never seen in fruit markets, and the growing of black currants is nowhere in the United States a commercial industry, although an occasional plantation may be seen in Canada. Here and there, plants are found in the gardens of Europeans settled in America or in those of their immediate descendants. The law in many states prohibits the culture of black currants because the plant is a host for the fungus which causes the pine blister-rust, a dangerous disease on certain pines. The black currant, for these reasons, though probably introduced in the United States as early as the red, has never become popular.[References used in this section: 1. Phillips, Henry Pom. Brit. 137. 1820.