Gardeners adding fruit to their landscapes tend to think first of familiar treats such as raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, which are all great to grow in our region, or fruit trees like apples and peaches, which present some challenges but are possible. But if you’re the typical suburban homeowner, you look at your proposed fruit orchard, and then you look at your yard, and the two don’t match up. Maybe that’s a matter of sheer space available. But often, it’s a matter of sun.
Most fruiting plants really prefer a full-sun location, which is something that those of us with mature trees lack. If your landscape trees are still small–well, someday you’ll get to the point where you have more shade than sun. Trees are wonderful and we should all plant more of them, but then we do end up without much space left for that meadow of sun-loving native perennials, never mind the vegetable garden and the orchard.
But what if I told you that you can plant fruit in the shade?
Most Americans, if they think of currants at all, see that box of dried fruit that go into some baked goods. They look like tiny raisins–and that’s because they are. They’re not real currants. Currants are a fruiting shrub native to Europe and Asia, and come in several colors: black, red, and white. Black and red are the easiest types to grow in our hot zone 7 area, and even then, they appreciate some shade against the heat. Grow them in full sun, and the leaves tend to burn and the fruit to dry up prematurely. That’s right, they don’t just tolerate shade; they love it. Even full shade is okay, though the plants will produce best in filtered shade or afternoon shade. My blackcurrant shrubs grow under the edge of the canopy of a sweetgum tree, and are vigorous, healthy, and productive.
Now, you’re not going to be picking fruit off a blackcurrant and stuffing it into your mouth as you might blueberries. Some people enjoy eating them fresh, but they are pretty tart, so they’re usually cooked into jams, jellies, or juices. These are all delicious, and I’ll note that the fruits contain a lot of natural pectin, so they don’t need any thickening agent. I canned up a bunch of jam this fall (after storing the berries I picked in June in the freezer) and it’s really good: flavorful and not overly sweet. (Always follow tested recipes from reliable sources when canning.)
Blackcurrants are also used to make crème de cassis, an alcoholic infusion. Mine (from this recipe) is currently (ha ha) in progress and should be ready to drink by Christmas. I’m using brandy as the base spirit; you can also find recipes using vodka or wine. The only other ingredient is sugar.
There is a native North American currant, called American black currant or clove currant, though I don’t think it is native to Maryland, and I have tried planting it several times with no success. It does produce fruit, and also lovely yellow flowers. European currants are not noted for their floral display, though since the leaves are beautiful I think they look great in the landscape. If you want a similar sort of fruit that has culinary uses and is native to our area, try planting aronia or chokeberry, which also comes in black and red types.
I have never had deer bother my currants, which doesn’t mean they never will, just that they much prefer other plants, but you’re pretty safe planting them especially if you protect them when they’re small. Birds seem to prefer other berries (maybe because currants hide under the leaves). The shrubs will grow to about five feet tall and wide. Not all varieties are self-fruitful, so plan on planting more than one. Seek out types that are resistant to white pine blister rust, especially if you have white pines anywhere in your area (and most of us around here do). The majority of modern currant cultivars have this resistance and the description should say so.
If you have shady areas that are crying out for new shrubs, and you enjoy canning or other ways of processing fruit, plant some currants! For myself, I’m planning this year to add a few more red currants–more jam is in the future!
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.