“Country life has its advantages,' he used to say. 'You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.”
― Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries
The European gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) has long been cultivated for both culinary and ornamental application in the UK and northern Europe, but is rarely seen either at the market or in the garden in the United States. Many states still ban any cultivation of gooseberries or other plants in the Ribes family, such as red and black currants. What is this controversial fruit and why should you want it?
The gooseberry plant is a hearty bush with twisted, knobbly branches covered in spines. It grows to be 3-5 ft tall and has leaves with a beautiful scalloped edge and tiny flowers that have five petals and a distinctive curl. The fruit resembles a fuzzy grape with flower remnants on the end (like the bottom of an apple). It’s very tart when picked green with more sugars developing as they ripen. The green berries are ideal for cooking into jams, sauces, and desserts while the fully ripe fruit is perfect for eating fresh.
The origin of the name “gooseberry” is subject to conjecture without any definitive answers. Some say it is a corruption of the French term “grosielle”, the French word for “red currant”, making the name, literally translated, “redcurrantberry”. Others believe the name came from Germanic roots, while others say that it’s just a plant named after an animal without any firm or metaphorical connection.
Gooseberries are known to contain high levels of vitamin C, as well as other vitamins, fiber, and minerals such as copper and manganese. Foods high in fiber help to regulate weight and fight obesity by slowing the absorption of sugars and aiding in the elimination of toxins. The antioxidants (such as anthocyanins and polyphenols) and phytonutrients contained in gooseberries may help protect brain and heart health and reduce the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke.
Why would anyone want to ban this amazing berry?
Cultivation of gooseberries in North America predates the founding of the United States by almost 150 years, starting in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. Popularity grew across the eastern US through the 19th century. Commercial cultivation of gooseberries and other ribes peaked at nearly 7000 acres by 1899, but things were about to change.
In 1911, the timber industry found a link between ribes and the White Pine Blister Rust that had been ruining lumber yields. The plants in the ribes family were found to be an intermediary host to the disease, which requires a host, such as the gooseberry, before infecting white pines. Through a concentrated lobbying campaign, the industry was able to convince federal legislators to ban the bushes nationwide. Not only was cultivation of gooseberries made illegal, but wild native species of gooseberries and other ribes were subject to a program of eradication by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
It was not until 1966 that the federal ban was lifted and the popularity of gooseberries in the US has yet to recover to pre-ban levels. States and municipalities have stitched together a patchwork of regulations, with several states still banning any cultivation of ribes species today. Oregon and other western states allow for cultivation, but half a century of prohibition lead to generations of Americans forgetting about this wonderful fruit. As few as 500 acres are dedicated to growing gooseberries here in Oregon.
You can now enjoy all of the health benefits and amazing flavor of gooseberries, regardless of your state's laws, with Big Jalm’s gooseberry jam. These green berries cook down to a garnet-red jam that goes well with soft cheeses, fish, poultry, or any dessert application.