Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Coastal Black Gooseberry- A Ribes to rave about.

Ripe berries of Coastal Black Gooseberry
In my estimation, the tastiest of the many types of currants and gooseberries that are found in Western Washington is Coastal Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum). With smooth skin and tart flavor, they are a welcomed snack whenever I can find them. Compare them to our region's other Ribes which all have either daunting looking spines on the fruit, or strongly resinous flavor, and they have even more appeal. 

The first time I laid eyes on a Coastal Black Gooseberry was in June of 1997. My high school buddy, his dad, and I were just getting started on an eight week canoe expedition through the Broughton Archipelago off the Central Coast of BC. Part of our mission was to supplement our diet with as much wild food as possible and we had only packed starchy staples like oatmeal, rice, and beans to force ourselves to forage for the balance of our diet. With little experience ocean fishing or collecting seaweeds, I was keen to collect as many berries as possible, but little was ripe beyond Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis).

The Red Huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) were starting to blush when we paddled past the hope inspiring place name Berry Island to camp at Mound Island. There along the edge of the white shell beach was a plant I had never seen. I could tell it was related to Prickly Black Currant (Ribes lacustre), but the stems weren’t covered with fine prickles. Young berries were starting to form so I made a note to look for it in the coming weeks.

A month later, when hunger had honed our ability to pull Red Rock Crab out of the shallows barehanded, jig Kelp Greenling without snagging, peal seaweed off the rocks, bake clams on the fire, and find the best (by then ripe) berry patches, we returned to Mound Island to check on those gooseberries. Sure enough, they were ripe and we happily added the large black berries to our morning mix of rolled oats and mashed Salal berries. It was a perfect combination.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned the full name of that gooseberry, and ever since then, I’ve always greeted it like a friend that treated me lavishly during hard but transformative times.

A small Coastal Black Gooseberry on Lopez Island

Note the hairy styles that are fuzed at the base
Coastal Black Gooseberry is a small hairy and armed shrub that normally grows 3-8 feet tall. The red-gray barked stems have up to 3 stout spines at the base of each leaf and normally lack prickles. The ¼-1 inch long spines are initially green, but redden in their first year and fade to orange or tan in subsequent years. Leaves are covered with fine hairs; petioles are ½-1 inch long; and leaf blades are maple shaped with 5 rounded and toothed lobes, the central being the largest and the lateral being the smallest (and sometimes absent). Flowers are solitary or born on 1-2 inch long racemes of 2-4 flowers; pedicels and peduncles are sparsely covered with gland tipped hairs or smooth. Each flower has 5 green-red sepals that usually curve backwards; petals are pinkish-white with a broad tip; the 5 stamens are white or pink, twice as long as the petals; the 2 pistils are covered with fine long hairs where they styles are fused, but are hairless where they split apart near the tip. Berries are purplish black when ripe, round, smooth, and 5/16-7/16” wide with withered flowers persisting on the tips.
A range of flowers and young Coastal Black Gooseberry fruit

Range map courtesy of CPNWH
As the name suggests, Coastal Black Gooseberry thrives near the ocean. I see it most frequently on backshore dunes and rocky bluffs within a stones throw of the saltchuck, but it also grows in open woods at low elevations. It is found from Bella Bella on the Central Coast of BC southward to Los Angeles with only a few populations east of the Cascades, most notably near The Dalles in north central Oregon.

The berries of Coastal Black Gooseberry are traditionally eaten fresh and occasionally cooked, juiced, sauced, or dried into cakes by virtually all Indigenous people that inhabit the plants range (Moerman). The Kwakwaka’wakw—who steward the lands and waters around the Broughton Archipelago where I first learned this plant—traditionally gather the berries while they are still green by beating the bushes with sticks and nocking the fruit onto mats. They are eaten fresh, boiled and slathered with eulachon grease, and more recently with milk and sugar (Turner and Bell 1973).

The species epithet divaricatum comes from the English word “divaricate,” meaning forked, branched or spreading, probably in reference to the berries which are often found in clusters of two, the large spreading thorns, or the shrubs which can spread and form extensive colonies. Coastal Black Gooseberry is also called Spreading Gooseberry, or Wild Gooseberry. There are two named varieties: Ribes divaricatum var. parishii or Parish’s Gooseberry is found only in California, and Ribes divaricatum var. pubiflorum or Straggly Gooseberry is found in both California and Oregon.

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