Fascinating facts: blackcurrants

Tiny little bombs of health and flavour, blackcurrants even helped out in the war effort

  • BlackcurrantsBotanical name: Ribes nigrum
  • Origins: The blackcurrant is native to northern Europe and northern Asia
  • First cultivated: Blackcurrants may have been cultivated in Russia from as early as the eleventh century, but they were not widely grown in Europe until the seventeenth century
  • Types: There are numerous modern-day cultivars, such as ‘Ben Connan’ and ‘Ebony’, which produce large fruit and are more resistant to pests and diseases than their wild progenitors
  • Skill level: Easy
  • Preferred location and conditions: Blackcurrants prefer an open, sunny site with well-drained, nutrient-rich soil
  • Good for containers: Yes, but choose a compact variety such as ‘Ben Sarek’
  • Planting and growing: Plant from November to March. Prepare the soil beforehand by removing all perennial weeds and adding a generous amount of well-rotted manure. Dig a hole at least twice the diameter of the root ball and tease out the roots before planting. Alternatively, plant in a container (45-50cm in diameter) using a good quality compost. Water well during the growing season. In the winter, when the plants are dormant, it’s advisable to feed and mulch the plants, as well as pruning them to remove the old wood, as they fruit best on the younger branches. See RHS advice: How to grow blackcurrants
  • Harvest time: June to August
  • Possible problems: Birds can strip the bushes of fruit, so use netting or fleece to protect your blackcurrants. Mildew can be remedied by removing and destroying the infected parts of the plant. Blackcurrant gall midge and big bud mite can also be a problem, although some modern cultivars are resistant to these pests

Did you know?

Blackcurrants are a relatively young commercial crop in the UK, having only been cultivated in the last four to five hundred years. Low-maintenance and well-suited to the British climate, blackcurrants are prized for their delicious flavour and numerous health benefits. There are many varieties of British blackcurrant, most of them named after Scottish mountains, eg. ‘Ben Gairn’, ‘Ben Lomond’, ‘Ben Connan’. Currently, the UK’s most popular variety for home growing is ‘Ben Hope’.
As many as 95% of the UK’s blackcurrants are used to make the popular drink, Ribena, which was first produced in 1938. During World War II, Ribena was given to children for free as a vitamin C supplement, and the British government encouraged home gardeners to grow blackcurrants for their high vitamin content, as citrus fruits were almost impossible to obtain.
As well as containing over three times more vitamin C than oranges (weight for weight), blackcurrants are packed with antioxidants and anthocyanins. Studies have shown that blackcurrants can help strengthen your immune system, boost cognitive function, help reduce gut inflammation, improve vascular health and even fight cancer.
Despite their delicious flavour and myriad health benefits, blackcurrants are not so well-known across the Atlantic. The fruit were banned in America during the early 1900s because they helped spread a fungus that killed white pine trees, threatening the US timber industry. From 2003, the ban was lifted in several states, although they are still considered a forbidden fruit in some states, including New Hampshire and Ohio.
Blackcurrants are one of the easiest soft fruit to grow. They can tolerate partial shade and poor drainage better than other fruit bushes, and an established plant can reward you with up to 10lbs of fruit, and will remain productive for up to fifteen years. Health-boosting blackcurrants can be juiced, stewed, turned into compotes, pies and sauces, and they make a delicious jam. The leaves are beautifully aromatic, and can be dropped into sauces and desserts to add flavouring.
Blackcurrants have recently made headlines as scientists at the University of Leeds have developed a non-toxic, sustainable hair dye using discarded blackcurrant skins from the Ribena factory. The natural hair dyes will be available to buy in the UK from summer 2018.

Text provided by Mr Fothergill's

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