Sunday, July 17, 2005


(corrected and enlarged 20/7/05)

It’s mid-July, hot weather, teenage boys are edgy and loud, and the warm air is full of the smell of buddleia, that plant of arid Tibetan rock that has found a new niche in our tarmac townscapes. Its scent is rich and honeyish, but distinct; more even than honey itself it suggests some of the lower-body scents that polite society says your fingers should not smell of; accepting this is like reading Freud’s implacably transparent pages on perversion and disgust. Many scents seem to stand on a boundary between fragrance and stink; most but not all people like the scent of the fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), and with common valerian (Valeriana officinalis) the proportions are reversed – even those who like it are aware of a sense of overcoming not merely the start of a headache but also a haunting unpleasantness. Memories of absent (i.e. spring) scents are desperately prone to inaccuracy, but I seem to think that valerian and hawthorn have a common register, a belief I will never be in a position to verify.

Who would want picking blackcurrants to smell any different from how it does? Yet from the leaves, the twigs and the berries arises a note that is undeniably pissy. But the elusive pleasure that comes from recognition thrives on the smell that belongs only to those rather few occasions when we picked blackcurrants in the dim and distant.

The blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) is as nearly as possible a plant that man has found it impossible to improve; it was already perfect for us. The bush produces no thorns, relying on its tomcat-scented leaf-glands to deter browsers. Though often found growing wild in dampish places in Britain it does not seem to have a heartland here and the strong suspicion is that it has been introduced.

Hardly any plants, and I suppose no northern ones, have evolved with us in mind – by “us”, I mean large apes. The blackcurrant berries grow all over the bush, but with particular luxuriance towards the wetter west and the sunnier south. (In this garden there are four bushes in a row, but nearly four of the five punnets we picked came from the south-western end of the south-western bush.) Since they ripen so early, a shady canopy is needed for the berries, and this is supplied by the newer and larger leaves, which arise in a spiral around the shoots and provide a solid defence against direct sunlight. Even on a hot day like this, the berries are perceptibly cool.

The flowers require cross-pollination to produce fruit, and this is said to be the work of bees. It can’t be the colour that attracts them.

The berries are meant to be eaten, mainly by small creeping birds, not the flocking types. The intention is plainly to distribute the seeds far and wide in the guts of many small creatures. The spiralling habit, which extends to the racemes on which the berries follow the flowers, is complex and more than adequate to ensure that no simple creature, however hungry, will be able to locate all the berries. The berries are black and easily missed in the shadows. That’s partly why the blackcurrant suits us; it does not need netting, for we alone are clever enough, and our hands are clever enough, to break the code and strip the whole bush to its last berry, an illuminating exercise in understanding the complications of a branching structure. As usual our relation with nature involves the need to pit our wits against it.

When the berries fill the punnet a hostile environment is created; the ants linger longest, but the small spiders can’t wait to get away. This overwhelmingly scented and treacherous shingle is no place for creatures of the open air. The berries flash-freeze beautifully, and make a delectable, easy-set jam that is good with bread-and-butter and better still with ice-cream or plain yoghurt; jars of it make graceful gifts, I mean those unexpected gifts to people you don’t know so well or feel so tied to that you're compelled to buy them Argos vouchers. The leaves make a superbly fragrant tea.

But this is not about jam, nor even about the loose enjoyment of seasonal labour that is celebrated, for example in modest poems, by people whose monthly salary involves nothing more earthy than the food-crumbs in their keyboard. It’s more about the quiet sophistication of the plant with its apparently simplistic flowers (based on a rather advanced hypanthium) and its apparently simple leaves, springing without stipules and growing to diferent sizes, withering, mottling, marbling, each in acute response to the weather-biography of its deciduous career, which is inscribed on it like a human life on a human face. The leaves of the blackcurrant are doorways, and the bush now empty of its load invites a question if you want to pursue it – one way or another it does pursue you – what now?


The notes above represent second thoughts, but unresearched thoughts. What follows is based mainly on assembling data from Google searches, some of which may be suspect.

I supposed that the blackcurrant (often written as “black currant” when referring to the plant) was the universal delight of mankind in temperate zones, but this is far from being the case.

The blackcurrant is native to northern Europe and adjacent Asia. It never interested the Greeks or Romans, who already had grapes. Therefore, the generic name Ribes is not the classical name for a blackcurrant or gooseberry; in fact, it derives ultimately from a Persian word that referred to species of Rheum (rhubarb). The word currant itself was, and in bakery still is, a name for small dried raisins, and is derived from the place that anciently exported them, Corinth. Blackcurrant Like the Swedish word vinbär reflects a perception of equivalence in Northern lands where grapes themselves could not be grown.

Widespread interest in blackcurrants dates back only to the sixteenth century. (No doubt there were local folk who appreciated it a much earlier date, but this lies outside the written record of civilisations). The plant was at first noted for its medical properties, which are indeed significant; blackcurrants are richer in Vitamin C than any other temperate fruit, and have other properties beside. This association with medicine in fact acted as a deterrent to the acceptance of the berry as food (rather as if someone tried to persuade you to eat ginseng pie). Hence it was redcurrants that first came into culinary favour. The vague connotation of healthiness persists to this day. The popular product Ribena, a very sweet soft drink, was at first marketed as a healthy drink for children; and a preparation of Ribes nigrum is one of the things you will be offered if you are foolish enough to show an interest in those junk emails about non-surgical penis enlargement.

Crop cultivars are said to be the result of crossbreeding Ribes nigrum with other asiatic species. I have no details about how or when this happened, and the plant in British floras is always treated as specific.

The main world producers are Germany and Poland, followed distantly by Russia, the UK and other countries in northern Europe.

In America, blackcurrants are unknown to the general public. The reason is that Ribes species introduced from Europe were found to be a secondary host of the blister rust that devastated the native White Pine. Cultivation was quickly banned and, though safe cultivars are now available and permitted, the moment had passed. Blackcurrants were forgotten, displaced in popular culture (e.g. as a flavouring for sweets) by grape. Nevertheless, blackcurrants did escape in those early days and are considered an invasive species in the NE USA.

What these additional notes are meant to show is how unsafe it is to assume that local traditions (e.g from my experience of England and Scandinavia) are immemorial and universal.

So, there are many doors, which I hope anyway was implicit in what I said. The glands on the underside of the leaf are, apparently, orange - I have never been able to see them. The racemes of berries are known as strigs. One authority recommends picking complete strigs and later pulling the strigs through the tines of a fork to release the berries. If you are harvesting on a larger scale this might save time, but I think it would make a mess and you’d end up with a lot of stalks in your jam.



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