Unique and Hardy Berries
The daughters of Heinie and Alice Snider may not have agreed on much, but they were all thrilled when my husband and I bought their parents’ dream home, built in the mid-1950s on a portion of the homestead land they grew up on. They were especially happy knowing I loved gardening. Known around the Matanuska Valley as the Snider sisters, Pat Hjellen (my grandma), Ann Short, and Marie Betts, each contributed to my garden with lots of advice, seeds, plants, and shrubs. Everything came from their own yards and those treasures continue to grow and multiply.
I was working outside one summer day when Aunt Marie drove up for a surprise visit. She had dug a Swedish black currant bush from her yard thinking it would have a good home with me. She said it was hardy and would produce a lot of berries. We wandered the yard together looking for a good place to plant it, but when we rounded the corner of our cabin she stopped in her tracks and scowled. “Those trees have got to go,” she declared. “All of them! Your view of the mountains shouldn’t be hidden!!” I agreed with her great advice, but my husband had different thoughts on the matter so we had to compromise. One summer a beaver decided to build its dam directly in front of our house. Our view improved greatly that year as the growing beaver family took down many trees for their home and winter food cache. I was thrilled as each one fell and I knew Aunt Marie would’ve been happy too.
I’m enjoying this rambling walk down “memory lane,” but I better get back to the point of Aunt Marie’s visit and this article. We found the perfect spot for her Swedish black currant—a place of honor next to Grandpa Snider’s aging greenhouse. She said to give it plenty of space to spread and I did. Today it has taken over that area and made many babies for me to share over the years. All I do to propagate new bushes is pull a branch down and put a heavy rock on top. Soon, roots reach into the ground below the rock. I cut the branch with the new roots off the mother bush to plant elsewhere or give away.
That Swedish black currant requires almost zero care, making it perfect for a gardener like me who tends to neglect her yard when other summer activities call. One of the things that makes them easy to grow is they are resistant to pests here in Alaska. My red currant bushes are attacked ferociously most years by currant worms, but the black currant bushes growing right next to the red ones are left alone. Moose ignore them in the summer, only considering them a yummy treat in the winter. Most shrubs do like a good trimming. It even competes well with the cotoneaster growing next to it, one of Aunt Ann’s favorites and one of Gramma Pat’s least favorites.
As Aunt Marie promised, they produce heavily. I enjoy their unique taste, and eat fresh berries for over a month every summer with plenty left to store in the freezer. I’ve had a tough time getting the rest of my family to consider them a yummy alternative to fresh grapes or blueberries, but they do love black currant/raspberry jelly. Black currants also have all the health benefits of many other berries and fruits. They can be used in place of blueberries in most recipes and combining them with rhubarb, raspberries, and even blueberries works well. Try them in smoothies, scones, muffins, and pancakes.
There are years in Southcentral Alaska that going out to pick wild blueberries can’t happen for various reasons, but now that I have my prolific crop of Swedish black currants it doesn’t matter. Check out your local nursery or garden club sale this spring to add one of these berry bushes to your garden.
Some of you may not have heard of Swedish black currants before now, and this is why. The lumber industry successfully brought about a federal law banning their cultivation in the United States in 1911 because the bushes contributed to the spread of white pine blister rust. The federal ban was shifted to individual states’ control in 1966. It wasn’t until 2003 that New York allowed black currant farms in their state, and the ban still exists today in Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, and Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia. So, while black currants are popular in Europe, New Zealand, and other areas of the world, they are still somewhat unknown in our country.