Dear Readers, when I was planting up my garden some eight years ago, I was wandering around the garden centre with my wonky trolley, trying to stop my phlox from capsizing, when I spotted a bush standing all alone in the corner. It seemed so lonely and unappreciated that I ground to a halt and wandered over for a closer look. The plant looked decidedly disheveled, but the leaves were just starting to emerge, and the buds were the most delicate pink-tinged things. I looked around. I looked back. I considered. And then,shoving a couple of ox-eye daisies to one side, I grabbed the plant.
‘You’re coming home with me!’ I told it. I still had no idea what it was but, just as when I was fostering cats and could sometimes see what a beautiful animal lay under the scratty fur and watery eyes, so this plant seemed to me to just be in need of some gentleness and consideration.
Eight years later it is the plant that delights both me and the hairy-footed flower bees most in the early days of April, as its cerise buds unfurl into a mass of flowers. You can’t beat a flowering currant for a spectacular show, and as this one is right next to the pond I get the double benefit of its reflection in the water.Flowering currant is actually a North American plant, growing on the west coast from California up to British Columbia. It was brought back to the UK by the Scottish explorer David Douglas in 1826, A friend remembers that the plant had a wonderful sweet scent, but mine has unperfumed flowers, and leaves that smell rather like the pee of a tom cat if crushed.
Flowering currant is a member of the Grossulariaceae family, along with the other currant species such as redcurrant, whitecurrant and blackcurrant, although the family is actually named for another member, the gooseberry. The berries of the flowering currant are not particularly juicy or flavoursome , but all the currants have a lot of gamma-linoleic acid in their roots, leaves and seeds which is proven to be efficacious for pre-menstrual syndrome. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest also ate the berry, in particular saving it for winter food – like all of the family, flowering currant is rich in vitamin C. One method for doing this was to turn the pulp of the berries into something called fruit leather, thus avoiding the numerous annoying seeds. If you want to see how this is done, have a look at the Wild Harvests website here.
The caterpillars of many moths and butterflies will feed on flowering currant, but the confusingly-named spinach moth only eats the leaves of members of this family.
Plus many other moth caterpillars will also make an occasional meal of a currant, and I make no apology for this gratuitous picture of an ermine moth, one of my favourites.
It is said that birds will also eat the berries, although the ones in my garden are extremely picky and seem to prefer the (very expensive) suet pellets.In their native Pacific Northwest the flowers are a prime early nectar source for hummingbirds – the colour and shape of the flowers is a dead give away.
I had never made the link between the name ‘Ribena’ (the blackcurrant cordial) and the Ribes family, which proves that I am not always paying attention. Incidentally Suntory, the company that makes Ribena, has gotten itself into a whole heap of trouble after changing its formulation to try to avoid the UK sugar tax. The drink now contains a heap of artificial sweeteners, which are also problematic as we know. There is a theory that, in addition to the various correlations between artificial sweeteners and diseases such as cancer, having too much of the stuff in your diet can screw up your glucose metabolism. So, maybe a reason to start making my own cordial (though the only time that I have ever drunk Ribena was when I was six years old and ill in bed with a bilious attack).
In spite of its prettiness, bringing a bough of this shrub into the house seems to be considered unlucky all over the UK. Maybe it’s the smell of cats’ pee that does it.
And bringing it all together, as always, is Seamus Heaney. In his collection ‘Field Work‘ he writes of many things, one of them being his love for his wife. Have a look at this, both the close observation of the plant, and the skin, and the last two lines which, like the last line of a haiku, seem to leave a kind of silence.
the pink bloom open
I press a leaf
of the flowering currant
on the back of your hand
for the tight slow burn
of its sticky juice
to prime your skin
and your veins to be crossed
criss-cross with leaf-veins
I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould
I anoint the anointed
bloom and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark
my umber one
you are stained, stained to perfection.
Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141
Photo Three Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293
Photo Four by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594
Photo Five by By Patrice78500 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600