Ribes sanguineum var. Glutinoseum
California native currants offer many resources for wildlife and are also beautiful specimens for the garden. The plants can grow to be large – up to about 9 feet tall and sometimes as wide – but they are easy to prune and can also be successfully espaliered on a trellis or against a fence.
California Currants and Gooseberries usually grow wild in shady riparian zones; in a garden setting, they need average water and prefer some afternoon shade in hotter inland areas. Deer will sometimes browse these plants but since both leaves and flowers are fragrant, it is not a favorite browse.
The Flowering Currants are somewhat deciduous, often not losing all their leaves before flowers appear in early spring. The flowers attract hummingbirds and other pollinators, and the fruits that follow in late summer are relished by birds and small animals.
Some named varieties ‘Inverness White’ or ‘Cal Flora White’ sport white flowers and ‘Claremont’ has flowers that are more reddish than pink.
The Native Peoples harvested the currants, dried them, and, by pounding them together with dried meats, created the first ‘Power Bar’! This was excellent sustenance for the people as they went on long walks from one good harvesting site to another. Some tribes had their ‘special oaks’ that provided the acorns that were a major staple of their diets.
Other native ‘Currants’ are also showy, but do not produce very many fruits in our area. Golden Currant (Ribes areum var. Gracillimum) is a shrub that grows 4 to 8ft tall, depending on specific conditions such as soils and sun exposure. It has yellow flowers followed by red-orangey fruits. Lots of native bees love the flowers, and I’ve also noticed Bee Flies that hover around the shrubs. This plant has no real fragrance, and the leaves are smooth and delicate, so the deer will browse it.
In my home garden, Golden Currant grows in the light shade under a Coast Live Oak, surrounded by Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea ‘Avis keedy’) which has pale yellow flowers. This salvia has extremely fragrant, and has very sticky leaves, so the deer are really not eager to walk through them to get a nibble or two of the Golden Currant. I completed the picture by adding a beautiful Pacific Coast Iris hybrid with flowers of gold and maroon. All these wonderful California natives, now established in my garden, grow and spread, beautifully with just rainwater!
A third native currant, easy and beautiful in gardens, is Catalina Perfume (Ribes viburnifolium) with very subtlety fragrant, smooth, and glossy dark green leaves; which are also distasteful to the deer. The flowers are tiny, held in small clusters, but it does not produce edible fruits.
This plant grows to about 2 feet tall and spreads by arching stems that take root where they find a good hold in the soil. They need very little water and light shade; so they are perfect under our native oaks. Plant them next to pathways so that as people brush past them they can enjoy the fragrant leaves!