Currants – Ribes SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Tiny Tart Berry of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, cigagwa’tigon meaning “skunk-like”, refers to swamp red currant, one of our native currants around Ontario. These edible and medicinal plants aren’t the same “currant” you find dried in grocery stores.

Currants (ribes spp.) are spattered everywhere around Haliburton county, Ontario. Gooseberry was covered earlier this year and is also a ribes. But here we’re covering the rest of local ribes. And there are many currants, and they are all lookalikes.

Around here, skunk currant (ribes glandulosum) is common, especially in the wet woods and damp slopes. Fairly common here are swamp red currant AKA northern redcurrant (r. triste), in damp woods and open swampy areas, and bristly black currant AKA swamp currant (r. lacustre), seen along damp and wet edges. Rare here is the escapee from cultivation and our only nonnative currant entered on iNat for Haliburton county, red currant (r. rubrum). While not listed in Haliburton Flora, iNat confirms American black currant (r. americanum) is present as well. These 5 are the most common in Ontario as a whole. Provincewide there are around 18 species, a mixture of natives and nonnative, including some native only to other parts of Canada.

I see these small shrubs on most hikes in my damp woods. Their small, typically pale flowers are barely noticeable early spring. And the wildlife must love the small fruit, because I rarely see the red or black berries left on the shrub.

Edible Uses of Currants

We’ve covered a ribes before: the thorned prickly gooseberry/gooseberry whose fruits look like little watermelons.

All ribes and currants have edible tart berries. Skunk currant will likely need cooked to taste better, in fact they all improve with cooking. Because they are high in pectin they are useful in jam and jelly recipes. Pinch off clusters of fruits and freeze them attached to the stems. They are easier to separate frozen.

You can eat the young leaves cooked. Or you can use the young leaves like a green tea; they are similarly full of antioxidants. The flowers are also edible.

Currants are popular for wines and liquors. Ribes lends its name to the blackcurrant cordial Ribena, which you should be able to find at about every grocery and variety grocery around Ontario. Black (r. americanum) has a distinct scent when you crush the leaf and may be the easiest to ID of our local currants.

FYI dried currants you get at the grocery store are actually from a small fruited grape and not a currant at all!

Medicinal Uses of Currants

Currant is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Immune

Medicinal tags include Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes as a heart support supplement due to the GLA (Gamma Linolenic Acid) in black currant seed oil (includes affiliate link to Amazon). It may help with other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis too. GLA is also in evening primrose oil.

Some of the specific species have alternative folk uses.

Alternative Uses of Skunk Berries

A natural, non-toxic hair dye has been obtained from blackcurrant skins. The resulting dyes, depending on what it’s combined with were vivid blues, violets and reds. If it’s not already on the market, it probably will be soon.

Growing Ribes SPP.

The genus also includes ornamental nonnative plants, although some of our native currants to Canada do have showy golden and pink blooms. You can find native varieties for food, medicine and ornamental reasons. Here is the distribution of the popular black currant on VASCAN, in green because it’s native. You can search the scientific name on the tags at stores on VASCAN to look for that green over Ontario (or wherever you are in Canada!) to know you’ve got the perfect plant for your area!


And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries (Regional Foraging Series)

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

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