Plant Profiles: Ribes sanguineum
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Pie, please, an' gimme one
Winter currant or red-flowering currant
Mid-February through early May-blooming upright,
twiggy deciduous shrub; 5 to 12 feet
Full to sun to part shade, good drainage; drought tolerant
If you need your confidence as a gardener boosted,
these are ridiculously easy to please plants.
When I was young, whether it was true or I imagined it, I often felt that my mother didn't give much credence to my opinions or observations until they were legitimized by an outside source. Consequently, I have an inordinate fondness for plants I believe have suffered similar fates.
Consider, for instance, our Northwest native winter currant, Ribes sanguineum, a complete joy throughout the unspoiled region for who-knows-how-many centuries. Studded with capbursts of color at a botanically bereft time of year, R. sanguineum has undoubtedly been celebrated by indigenous people up and down the Northwest coast.
But it wasn't until the arrival of the Scots that true legitimacy was conferred on the species: "discovered" (don't you hate that?) in 1793 by Archibald Menzies during his voyage with Captain George Vancouver; introduced into British commerce in 1817 by Scotsman David Douglas; popularized throughout England and cultivated into tamer forms, such as 'King Edward VII'; finally reintroduced to the United States where it won acceptance as a titled and worthy garden plant.
But what's done is done, and no harm for it: R. sanguineum is one of the all-time superb early-spring-flowering shrubs. Easy (I mean easy) to grow, well-mannered but amenable to severe pruning, the red-flowering currant has fabulously showy flower clusters that are usually unhindered by leaves. Time of bloom and flower color vary according to cultivar, but figure on anything from creamy white to crimson, beginning in February and sometimes lasting till May. The glaucous, blue-black fruits are attractive, but are strictly survival food for humans, although birds are fond of them.
'Elk River Red' is a tried-and-true Oregon variety that blesses many a Portland garden. At the Gardens of Elk Rock at Bishop's Close, this currant's sizzling color stops the heart and the eye. It's quite an exclamation point in a landscape resplendent in early spiketail (Stachyurus praecox, one of the finest specimens of its kind) and buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora) as it floats in a pond of blue Pulmonaria blooms.
It's arguable whether, within their given color range, R. sanguineum cultivars are strikingly different. Not that local nurseries can keep any of them in stock. The most accessible red forms are the aforementioned 'King Edward', more compact than most, and 'Pulborough Scarlet', another rich-blooded import and a extremely reliable bloomer. Opinion is divided as to whether these two cultivars are tougher than those bred close to home; all in all, none of the cultivars seem to sniff at 0 degrees F.
We lose a little in hardiness but gain enormously in matters sublime when the subject is Ribes speciosum. if you're a fuchsia lover and have been suffering winter withdrawal, this gooseberry's the next best thing. Native to coastal California (and therefore quite tolerant of heat and drought, though it will die back to the ground at 12 degrees F), this spiny-stemmed shrub has an arching, twiggy habit, reaching four feet high and six feet wide. It has bite-sized lobed leaves and slender dangling fuchsia-red flowers with spidery-legged stamens, shown off to best advantage espaliered against a south-facing wall of a contrasting color.
One more early-flowering currant: Ribe laurifolium, a native of China, with drooping racemes that are the ultimate in chartreuse, enhanced by leathery, evergreen foliage with reddish maroon stems. It tops out at three feet, takes shade and a variety of soils, and should make a splash combined with plum-stained hellebores, tucked under larger shrubs.
That's my opinion, anyway; to be certain, you'd better check with my mom.