|Early spring flowers of Red Flowering Currant
Continuing my series of traditional food plants that are rarely eaten these days, I turn my attention to Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). While native plant landscapers and restoration ecologists adore this plant for its enormous clusters of soul piercing pink flowers that are capable of transforming winter sodden pessimists into vernal optimists, few people pluck the musky fruit. But just because a berry has some disagreeable qualities, doesn’t mean it has to be relegated to wither away on the bush. This year when sampling this nearly forgotten fruit, I detected some encouraging flavors and set out on a mission to distill the good from the bad. I share now a plant with a remarkable history and hints of contemporary culinary promise.
|Large flower clusters
Red Flowering Currant is an upright shrub that grows 5-10 feet tall. Stems lack thorns and have reddish-brown bark. Leaves are 1-2.5 inches wide, alternate, petiolate, with 3 deep lobes and 2 shallow lobes (5 total). The upper surfaces are green and mostly smooth while the undersides are whitish and finely haired. Flowers are pink-red with 5 petals, in racemes of 10-20. It is one of our first bloomers providing brilliant strokes of color to the early spring in March and April. Berries are ovate, 3/8-5/8 inch long and slightly narrower, sparsely covered with short gland-tipped bristles and withered petals. Fruit ripen to a deep purple with a thick white bloom in late July and August.
|Currants with weak bristled fruit
Red Flowering Currant grows abundantly throughout the lands adjacent to the Salish Sea, along both slopes of the Cascades and westward to the Pacific Coast, and southward throughout western California to the Channel Islands. An isolated (and critically imperiled) population occurs near Lake Coeur d’Alene.
|David Douglas in 1834, shortly before his death.
The first botanical specimen of Red Flowering Currant was collected by Archibald Menzies, naturalist on Captain Vancouver’s 1792 voyage in the Pacific Northwest (Newcombe 1923). Lewis and Clark also made an early collection on March 27, 1806 from the banks of the Columbia near the mouth of the Cowlitz (Earle and Reveal 2003), and less than 20 years later, explorer-botanist David Douglas encountered Red Flowering Currant in May of 1825 and collected seeds in late July or early August of that year, which he shipped back to his employer, the London Horticultural Society (Douglas 1914). According biographer Jack Nisbet (2012), propagules from Douglas’s Red Flowering Currant seeds were a smashing success among English gardeners, and the proceeds from Red Flowering Currant sales alone paid for Douglas’s entire expedition salary, transportation, and expenses. It remains one of the most popular flowering shrubs in England. The species name sanguineum means "blood-red".
The ethnographic record for Red Flowering Currant is somewhat spotty, partially on account of the confusing diversity of currants and gooseberries that are often listed without descriptive names or features. They were gathered and eaten raw, stewed, or canned for future use by the Hoh and Quileute (Albert 1934). The Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) ate them fresh, dried, or stewed to add flavoring to other food (Turner et al. 1990), and the Vancouver Island Salish occasionally boiled and dried the berries, but more commonly ate them raw (Turner and Bell 1971). The Klallam traditionally ate them raw (Gunther 1927) as did the Warm Spring Paiute (Mahar 1953). The Skagit and the Squamish also occasionally ate them, but evidently they weren’t well liked (Theodoratus 1989; Turner and Bouchard 1976), possibly on account of their bitter/astringent seeds.
|A healthy fruit cluster!
Taste aside, Red Flowering Currants are larger and easier to pick than most other mid-summer fruit. I frequently encounter berries that are 5/8ths of an inch long, ½ inch wide, and in clusters of 25-35. Either “milking” currants on the bush, or plucking the entire cluster and stripping the berries off through thumb and fore-finger are efficient means of collecting these currants, and I can pick a pound in 10 minutes at a good site.
Raw, they have mildly sweet flavor and astringent aftertaste with a slightly skunky or musky aroma similar to Stink Currant (Ribes bracteosum). Their texture is superb being neither juicy nor dry and mealy, they have a thick, creamy quality that I enjoy. However, their major downfalls are numerous seeds and persistent flower petals that cling morbidly to each berry. Red Flowering Currant seeds are an annoying size that is too small to easily spit out and too large to easily ignore, they are also astringent (tongue drying) and slightly bitter.
|3 pounds of Red Flowering Currant ready to be processed
|Straining the seeds
This year I decided to try and strain the seeds out to see if I could improve the quality of the fruit pulp. I steamed the fruit with ½ inch of water in the bottom of a large pot for 30 minutes to soften the skins. As the currants cooked they released a very strong aroma like walnut rinds. I loaded the fruit into my food mill with the standard screen (1/16th inch holes) and started cranking away. Initially the pulp separated beautifully, but soon the seeds plugged up the screen and the flow was somewhat restricted. The pulp came out dark purple with nice thick texture. The seed waste wasn’t as dry as it often is and still had some pulp intact, so I diluted the mash slightly with a little water and ran it through the food mill again, separating the second run into a different container. Towards the end of the second run the auger became completely plugged and seeds were crushed through the screen instead of being pushed out the end.
I ended up with three containers. In the first was my initial batch of Red Flowering Currant pulp, which had a nice smell and decent flavor but a hint of bitterness. The second container held the pulp from the next “pressing” and it definitely had more seeds squished into it because it was too bitter to enjoy, so I threw it out. The last container contained the seeds, which retained the walnut rind aroma. I didn’t even bother tasting them.
While I can’t definitively say that the bitter constituent in Red Flowering Currant is entirely attributed to the seeds, I think my initial experiment provided good clues. If I had a screen attachment with smaller holes (such as the 3/32nd inch "berry screen" sold by Squeezo), it may have done a better job of separating the seeds instead of grinding them through the screen. I also might try pre-mashing the berries and diluting the mash with water so the seeds wouldn’t be as concentrated and the pulp would separate more easily. Whatever course I take, I will definitely stop and clean my screen if it gets plugged up next time.
|Cooked pulp spread on tray
|Finished fruit leather
I spread my fruit pulp on a dehydrator sheet and dried it for about 12 hours. The resulting fruit leather has a fantastic texture (like store bought fruit leather) and grape/apple-like flavor that has less bitterness than the raw pulp but is still a little astringent. Based on the ease of picking Red Flowering Currants and their great texture, I can see why they were mixed with other fruit to make fruit leather by some Native Americans.
Douglas, David 1914. Journal Kept by David Douglas during His Travels in North America 1823-1827, Together with a Paricular Description of Thirty-Three Species of American Oaks and Eighteen Species of Pinus. Published under the direction of the Royal Horticultural Society, William Wesley & Son, London.
Earle, A. Scott and James L. Reveal 2003. Lewis and Clark’s Green World: The Expedition and Its Plants. Farcountry Press, Helena MT.
Gunther, Erna 1927. Klallam Ethnography. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 1:5
Newcombe, Charles F. 1923. Botanical and Ethnological Appendix to Menzies’ Journal of Vancouver’s Voyage, April to October 1792. King’s Printer, Victoria BC.
Nisbet, Jack 2012. “David Douglas and the Landscape of the Pacific Northwest.” Presentation to Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University, November 9, 2012. View online on Youtube.
Mahar, James Michael. 1953 Ethnobotany of the Oregon Paiutes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Reed College, B.A. Thesis (As cited in http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl).
Reagan, Albert 1934. Plants used by the Hoh and Quileute Indians. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, Vol 37.
Theodoratus, Robert J. 1989. Loss, Transfer, and Reintroduction in the Use of Wild Plant Foods in the Upper Skagit Valley. Northwest Anthropological Research Notes 23(1):35-52
Turner, Nancy J. and Randy Bouchard 1976. Squamish Ethnobotany (unpublished manuscript).
Turner, Nancy J., Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990. Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Royal British Columbia Museum Memoir No. 3, Victoria BC.