Black currants thrive in lush Southcentral conditions

By SHEILA TOOMEY
Daily News correspondent
August 24, 2012 

The gardens of Anchorage are lonely -- and not just because of the lousy weather. Most of the gardeners I know are out berry picking.

Where? Surely you jest.

No serious berry-picker will tell you where she goes. Not her favorite spot anyhow, the one where you have to drive 200 miles, crash through brush on imaginary trails, climb rocks, try not to slide down muddy hills on your butt, claw through brambles with stickers while toting water, bug dope and containers -- all to pick a bunch of runty blueberries.

They have a diagnosis for people who consider this fun.

Perhaps this is a good time to examine the pros and cons of growing your own. And, for something different, how about black currants?

This stepchild of the Ribes family is hardy, relatively easy to grow, less tart than red currants, incredibly productive, resistant to the occasional frost, comfortable in partial shade and, to quote Big Lake gardener Deb Bitney, "When you defrost them, they remember they're berries." Meaning they retain shape and consistency.

In 1944, at the urging of the lumber industry, Congress outlawed black currant farming in America because the plants can host white pine blister rust, a disease that attacked commercial pine stands. The ban was lifted in 1966, after the Canadians developed blister rust resistant strains.

Bitney bought five black currant plants seven years ago when efforts to grow other edible berries in her yard proved disappointing. Raspberries did fine but she couldn't get berries from her serviceberry bushes. She tried blueberries but they died.

Red currants are generally too tart to eat off the bush, which is how Bitney likes her berries, so when someone suggested black currants she remembered them growing wild on a cliff near her grandfather's cabin in Soldotna and took a flier. The cultivated ones are bigger and sweeter than the wild, she said. But not sweet, and not to everyone's taste when raw, which is how Bitney eats them. By the handful, out of a big bowl.

She also makes black currant-raspberry-honey jam and a dessert topping with currants, rhubarb and honey. Unlike raspberries and blueberries, almost everyone needs a sweetener with currants.

This is a good year for black currants in Southcentral and the most amazing attribute of the ones ripening in Bitney's yard is the incredible profusion of berries per bush. Zillions.

Black currants are generally known for high production, but Bitney said her husband tripled hers by composting them.

Many Alaskans have one or two black currant bushes in the yard, and they grow fairly well here, according to Dan Elliot, secretary of the Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association. Consort is a popular variety, he said.

Jay Dearborn, a valley farmer who has 500 bushes (he mentioned Swedish variety), said it takes a bush about three years to mature to full yield and an experienced picker can net 10 pounds an hour.

He calls them "Alaska's grape" and has four freezers filled with past pickings.

Why? "They're yummy," he said, "a strong taste, but good."

Dearborn, whose farm is probably best known to gardeners for its seed potatoes, is searching for just the right commercial product.

The French word for black currant is "cassis," so you can guess what they're mainly used for there. Booze. But Dearborn prefers his straight.

"I think wine ruins it," he said.

His recipe: Just smash them up in a colander, not a blender, strain out the pulp and freeze the concentrate. Use at will. Add water and sugar (or honey?) to taste. It's delicious, he said.

Bitney, on the other hand, has a recipe starting with, "Put them in rum and let it sit for a year ...".

Bitney got her original plants at Northern Fruits Greenhouses in Palmer.

A spokesman there said they've seen an uptick in interest lately -- they've sold 30 plants in the last week or so, he said. They're expecting more in before the weather shuts us down.

If you frequent health food stores, you know black currants are the current wonder food -- the juice, not the seed oil.

They're higher than blueberries in antioxidants and, if you believe the pushers, good for much of what ails us.

Check online and make up your own mind about the claims.

Like Bitney, I just care if they taste good and if I can grow them.

She says yes on both counts.

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