The Ribes genus is well-known for the familiar cultivated fruits, gooseberries and currants. The genus extends far beyond the familiar fruits, however, and contains almost 200 species dispersed across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and South America.
Our National Collection represents some of the diversity in the genus and includes many of the ornamental Ribes and the wild relatives of the cultivated currants. Other National Collections of Ribes concentrate on conserving the cultivated gooseberries and currants.
The Garden’s collection of species Ribes was brought together in preparation for a research project into the diversity of this important genus. Although the research project did not materialise, it remains a unique collection and includes many species rarely cultivated in the UK. The major part of the collection can be found opposite the Herbaceous Island Beds on the South Walk, alongside the Philadelphus (Mock Orange) collection. They make a spectacular show in April-May, when the plants are festooned with flowers in a range from white, through bubblegum pink to deep cerise.
Most Ribes are small shrubs with 3- to 5-lobed flowers; the stems can be very spiny. Some bear only small green flowers, while others bear showy, spring-time flowers and make worthy garden shrubs. Perhaps best known is the flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum from western North America, that produces drooping flower clusters from late March in colours ranging from deep rose pink to white. The Clove or Buffalo Currant, [Ribes odoratum makes an unusual spring addition to the Scented Garden, when it is clothed in golden-yellow tubular flowers from which protrude crimson anthers. It releases a deep, spicy clove note into the floral mix. These two species have hybridised to produce one of the most ornamental of the flowering currants, Ribes x gordonianum. Distinct and unusual, the drooping flowers are deep red in bud, opening yellow and flushed red at the base.
Other garden worthy species include R. alpinum with greenish white flowers in spring and R. laurifolium well known for its early display of greenish-white flowers in February and March. Perhaps the most unusual is R. menziesii from North America which can reach two metres high and bears small fuchsia-like flowers in May, with the white petals contrasting with the reddish-purple calyx. The flowers are followed by reddish, bristly fruits. With similar but bigger flowers is R. speciosum from California, rich-red in colour but usually needing a sheltered position to thrive.
Most Ribes are easy to grow in most soils and are perfectly hardy. They can become untidy with age, but regular or hard pruning out of older stems immediately after flowering will keep shrubs in good shape.