clove currant: ribes odoratum, or ribes aureum

Clove currant, Ribes odoratum or Ribes aureumWHAT NATIVE AMERICAN SHRUB smells like cloves right now, with a profusion of golden flowers, and handsome lobed foliage (which will turn nice warm colors in fall)? Another clue: It would have fruit, too, if you had both a male and a female plant. It’s the clove currant, which I know as Ribes odoratum, and woody plant expert Michael Dirr calls it “a rare gem in the shrub world.”

The clove currant, which in some references is listed as synonymous with Ribes aureum var. villosum, is native to the central United States, specifically “Minnesota and South Dakota, south to Arkansas and Texas,” reports “Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.” My friend and fruit expert Lee Reich points out that odoratum and aureum are two distinct species, and grows both (you can see his comment below).

Flower detail of Ribes odoratum or aureumI first smelled the plant in my friend Bob Hyland’s garden—for that is how it goes with this one if you are anywhere near it in spring; your nose leads you to it. Before I even noticed the screaming yellow flowers, I followed my nose.  It blooms for weeks beginning around the same time as Amelanchier and then right through Viburnum carlesii and beyond here—still at it now along with my lilacs and crabapples.

Leaf detail of Ribes odoratum or aureumEventually the clove currant (hardy in Zone 4-8) will get to 6 feet high and wide or slightly larger, and eventually may sucker, forming a colony as it does in nature. Again, if I had a male and a female I’d get fruit–which the birds would be happy about. The variety of clove currant called ‘Crandall’ is the one you’ll find if you can track this plant down, at mail-order nurseries such as High Country Gardens and Forest Farm. So does Heritage Flower Farm. It would make a great hedge.

ribes restrictions in some states

ADOPTING ANY Ribes brings up a cautionary tale. The genus Ribes—which includes currants and gooseberries–includes a lot of beautiful and also delicious-fruited plants, but it has a tricky history. Ribes—and particularly non-resistant varieties of the black currant, or Ribes nigrum–can be the host for white pine blister rust, a very serious disease of 5-needled pines including white pine (Pinus strobus), and therefore has been banned at various times in various states. The clove currant is potentially an alternate host, so I offer these disclaimers:

“Fourteen (14) states still maintain various types of bans on Ribes,” says the Missouri Botanical Garden website, “the most restrictive being the total ban on all species in North Carolina.”

New York, where I garden, is not among them, reports the Cornell website, explaining that in the early 20th century the Federal government  banned Ribes to stem the outbreak of the disease, but that the nationwide ban was lifted in 1966.

36 comments
May 12, 2013

comments

  1. jai says

    My clove currents are experiencing serious die back. I also have red, white and black currents and josta berries, none of which are showing this symptom. I cut back the dead wood. What else can I do, as I love these plants?

    • margaret says

      Hi, Jai. As you mention, I’d cut back the dead wood (all the way at the base) to rejuvenate the shrub, and give it a chance to produce more young, vigirous stems. It’s normally a suckering shrub, and younger stems are more vigorous, anyhow (with more flowering). I don’t know how old your shrub is, but they can get messy looking as they age unless rejuvenated. I have read that Ribes can get some diseases, but don’t know much about symptoms on clove currant specifically (and you do say your other Ribes are OK).

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