Wild Black Currant
Gooseberry family (Grossulariaceae)
Description: This shrub produces little-branched woody stems about 3-5' tall that are erect, ascending, to slightly arching. The base of older stems is reddish brown or reddish black with white lenticels; otherwise, stems are medium gray and winged with light brown woody ridges. Young non-woody shoots are light green, terete, and hairy. Alternate leaves develop along the shoots. The blades of these leaves are about 1½-3½" long and similarly across; they are orbicular in outline, but palmately lobed (3 or 5 lobes). The margins of the blades are coarsely and irregularly toothed and sometimes shallowly cleft. The upper blade surface is medium to dark green, glabrous, and variably wrinkled from sunken veins; the lower blade surface is light green and hairy, particularly along the veins. Both the lower and upper surfaces of the blades have minute glandular dots that are gold-colored. The petioles are up to 3" long, light green, and hairy.
Occasionally, short lateral shoots from the stems terminate in drooping racemes of flowers about 1-3" long. Each raceme has 5-15 flowers that are arranged alternately along the central stalk; at the base of each flower, there is a linear-oblong bract about 1/3" long (8 mm.) that is somewhat recurved and ciliate. The central stalk of each raceme is light green and pubescent. Individual flowers are about 1/3" long (8 mm.) or slightly longer, consisting of a green inferior ovary, a greenish white to pale yellow tubular calyx with 5 spreading lobes that are oblong in shape, 5 erect whitish petals that are largely hidden by the lobes of the sepals, 5 non-exerted stamens, and 2 united styles that become divergent at their tips. The jointed pedicels are 1/8" long or less. The blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring and lasts about 3 weeks. Fertile flowers are replaced by fleshy berries. Individual berries are 1/3" (8 mm.) across or a little wider, ovoid to globoid in shape, and shiny. Immature berries are green, while mature berries are black. Each berry contains numerous minute seeds that are ovoid and somewhat flattened.
Cultivation: The preference is partial sun, consistently moist conditions, and cool to moderate temperatures; the soil can contain loam, clay, sand, or rocky material. This woody plant is one of the hosts of White Pine Blister Rust.
Range & Habitat: The native Wild Black Currant is occasional in northern Illinois, uncommon in central Illinois, and absent in the southern section of the state (see Distribution Map). Habitats consist of both typical and sandy swamps, typical and sandy sedge meadows, fens and seeps, partially shaded streambanks, low areas of moist ravines and rocky canyons, and open woodlands. This woody plant is usually found in less disturbed habitats that receive partial shade.
Faunal Associations: The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, Halictid bees (Lasioglossum spp.), and an oligolectic bee, Andrena nivalis. Several insects feed on the foliage and other parts of Wild Black Currant and other Ribes spp. These insect feeders include the caterpillars of the butterflies Polygonia faunas (Green Comma) and Polygonia progne (Gray Comma), the caterpillars of Dysstroma hersiliata (Orange-Barred Carpet) and other moths, Cryptomyzus ribis (Currant Aphid) and Nasonovia ribisnigri (Lettuce Aphid), Poecilocapsus lineatus (Four-Lined Plant Bug) and Taedia colon (Plant Bug sp.), the larvae of the wood-boring beetles Agrilus aurichalceus (Bronze Cane Borer) and Psenocerus supernotatus (Currant Tip Borer), the leaf beetles Altica ribis and Tricholochmaea ribicola, the larvae of the sawflies Nematus ribesii (Imported Currantworm) and Janus integer (Currant Stem Girdler), and the larvae of Euphantra canadensis (Currant Fruit Fly). See the Insect Table for a more complete listing of these species. Another invertebrate species, Cecidophyopsis psilaspis (Currant Bud Mite), causes galls to form on the buds. Both birds and mammals eat the berries of Ribes spp. and help to distribute their seeds into new areas. Among mammals, these species include the Red Fox, Eastern Chipmunk, Red Squirrel, Striped Skunk, Raccoon, Woodland Deer Mouse, White-Footed Mouse, and Meadow Vole. Berry-consuming birds include the Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Robin, Cedar Waxwing, and extinct Passenger Pigeon. White-Tailed Deer occasionally browse on the twigs and foliage.
Photographic Location: The photograph of the flower and berry was taken at a sandy swamp of the Oak Openings Nature Preserve in NW Ohio. The photographs of the woody stem and young leaves were taken at a shaded seep of the Horseshoe Bottoms in Vermilion County, Illinois.
Comments: The edible berries of Wild Black Currant can be used to make jelly, wine, or pie; they can also be used to flavor black tea. Notwithstanding the palatability of its berries, the black currant that is commonly cultivated for fruit is the European species, Ribes nigrum (Black Currant). Unlike many other Ribes spp., Wild Black Currant lacks prickles as protection against herbivores. This native species can be identified by its odd-looking stems (gray with brown woody wings), the glandular golden dots on its leaves, its black berries, and the structure of its flowers (long tubular calyx with petaloid lobes, non-exerted stamens, etc.).