clove currant: ribes odoratum, or ribes aureum var. villosum

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—and is often still at it along with the start of 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. It would make a great hedge; I planted mine right inside my front gate, so I have to inhale it every time I come and go in its season.

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:

“Fifteen (15) 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.

  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?

    1. 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).

        1. margaret says:

          Hi, Deb. I saw the B&W warbler on your Flickr stream and had one here in the garden not far north of you this week, too. Adorable little thing.

  2. nancy shannon says:

    my clove current is only a year old looked great last year this year never got a flower and looks tall and lanky whats wrong

    1. margaret says:

      Many plants “sulk” and skip a year of flowering after being uprooted/transplanted. Assuming it has good light and is growing healthily (good foliage) I would not worry. Don’t feed it; people assume that’s the answer and a lot of Nitrogen can prevent bloom.

  3. J. Ellen Dolce says:

    I’ve had a clove current bush for a number of years and it does just fine on the northeast corner of my house. I don’t remember which mail order catalog I ordered it from but I was attracted by the promise of a clove fragrance…a promise fulfilled. It’s always fun to find you featuring a plant I have and thought I was the only gardening nut to have one.

  4. Dave Liezen says:

    Raintree in Washington & Whitman Farms in Oregon also offer Crandall currant, along with quite a few others (27 black currants from Whitman!) Both ship across the country.

    I have not tried it yet, as black currants were a priority. They make the best jam in my experience. Wonder if they might cross pollinate?

  5. Janis Hyland says:

    Dear Margaret,
    Happily I have just discovered that a favorite bush that we always called a spice bush is really a Clove Currant and looks exactly as pictured. The plant in my backyard is older than I am and I am a senior citizen, though I hate to admit it. It has bloomed consistently since I was a child. I moved the plant from a country yard near Albany, NY to my yard in Rochester, NY a few years ago. It still blooms and sends out its wonderful scent each spring. This early spring I found a broken branch, brought it indoors and is has leafed out and bloomed. Do you think I could propagate this branch? I’d love to keep it going for sentimental reasons. The remainder of the bush is looking pretty old and tired. It is still cold here and the original bush has not bloomed yet. Thank you. Janis Hyland

    1. margaret says:

      The spicebush (LIndera benzoin), a native shrub to our region, blooms very early. The flowers are also yellow, but different shape from the clove currant, but what is very different is the leaf shape (and the size of the plant even when mature — the spicebush is much larger). You can see photos about it at this link (including flower details). I don’t think you will be able to propagate from a branch that has bloomed but I really do not know, and I don’t see any good reference online about propagating it. First be sure you have the clove currant.

  6. Nancy Milam says:

    My garden needs a Golden Currant. However, I am not able to find one for sale. Could you please direct to someone who sells these?

    Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Nancy. In recent Google searches I recall finding it at High Country Gardens and Whitman Farms, so you could search those maybe? From year to year different people seem to have it or not.

  7. sarah says:

    In response to Janis’ question from last year, yes, clove currant (now that I know that’s what has been growing in my parents’ yard in southwestern NYS since I can remember) is easily propagated. Two years ago, I think, my dad gave me what looked like a dead branch w/nothing on it from that bush. I planted it in our front yard in northern PA, trying to remember to water it regularly throughout the dry summer. This spring it is a beautiful little bush with at least 2 main branches, about 3 feet high, full of leaves, and the best smelling yellow flowers in the world!

  8. Kate says:

    Margaret, if you are just growing ‘Crandall’ you may not be getting any fruit because all of the plants are genetically the same. From what I have heard, the issue with fruiting is not that there need to be male and female plants – but that they need different genetics (like apples and most viburnums)

  9. Nathan Laney says:

    Hi. I got curious about clove bushes, so I did a Google search and landed here. My grandmother who died over a year before I was born, had a clove bush planted at the North Northwestern corner of her house in Western PA. One of my sisters took a start from it and it grew beautifully in her yard. She gave starts from her bush to two of our sisters and also gave me a start. They did really well. Then, one of my sisters’ bush died. Then, my sister who gave us the starts lost her bush…it died. Our grandmother’s original bush is long gone, and my other sister’s bush was uprooted and destroyed after she and her husband sold their home. So, I’m the only one who still has a clove bush. I got my start six years ago. The original plant died off, but new young branches came up. It’s still very young looking, but it flowers every year. This year’s the best year it’s had so far.

    1. Blanche says:

      What are the differences between the ribes odoratum and ribes aureus? In pictures, it looks as if only ribes odoratum has an orange center … is that right?

  10. Timothy McCartan says:

    I just noticed our lone black currant has fruit. This is a first after 5 years. I can only assume there is another in the neighborhood. The fruit is sparse but delicious.

  11. Joanne C Toft says:

    Feb. 2022 – Can you tell me or point me in the direction of information on the male and female clove current bush (Ribs Aureum) I have a bush and would love to have the partner but have know idea how to tell the difference. I have checked on line but not finding any information. Do you have a expert we can ask?

    1. margaret says:

      I see different information everywhere about it. I’d try calling Xera Plants Nursery in Portland OR (they don’t mail-order but recommend the variety ‘Crandall’ as self-fertile) and maybe High Country Gardens, too. See what they think since both have experience apparently w/the plant, specifically that cultivar.

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