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.

  1. helen says:

    2 years ago I visited a friend’s garden when her clove bush was blooming. Until then I had only known it as the green bush by the bird bath. I HAD to have one of my own. She carefully dug up a side shoot of the bush and I now have my own bush. So wonderful to be out there gardening with that scent wafting in the air. A branch of it also perfumes my kitchen.

  2. cindy says:

    I just discovered this native myself and am rooting it now. You know it’s prolific when a 2 ft woody stick roots almost immediately!

  3. Sandy says:

    We had this in our Somonauk, IL yard. It came from a gardening friend. A wonderful plant. Your article brought back memories of its incredible smell and an old friend.

  4. jamie says:

    Margaret, It was a wonderful time to see your garden — rain just deepened the colors.
    What is the name of your white lilac? It has the most divine perfume!

  5. Linda says:

    Margaret, i live your newsletter and site. My mother had a clove currant at our childhood home and when she and my father moved to a “retirement project” farm, they found a large patch of it. Now my sisters and I have it as well. I always wondered why it wasn’t common in nurseries, given the foliage, flower and fragrance trifecta!

  6. Carole Clarin says:

    Looks like another specimen to add to the list that you so kindly bring to our attention! As Jamie says, the rain on your first open garden day did brighten your incredible garden even more than if the sun had been shining. The time and attention you give is so apparent and I’m certain, appreciated by all your visitors.

  7. naris Montes says:

    Oh my ……..this takes me back. I remember this from when I was a child. I’m now 77.
    I haven’t seen or smelled it since. Tempted to order it even though I don’t do much gardening any more. At least it would be there for those who come after.

    1. margaret says:

      Interesting to hear it’s an old-fashioned favorite, Naris and Sandy. Thanks for telling us! I do love this plant, and am glad my friend Bob shared it with me.

      Thank you Carole, and also Linda, for your kind words!

  8. Leslie says:

    I also have it and love it. I have found ‘Crandall’ to be fruitful with large black currents that are delicious right from the bush. They are great on cereal or to just pop in you mouth if you get them before the birds. I have not had a problem with spreading. I would actually like it to increase to a clump.

  9. Beth says:

    I have a Crandall clove currant, it seems to form berries all on its own, maybe there’s another one in the neighborhood, though I haven’t seen one. We’re having a problem here on the west coast with currant fruit fly, which I haven’t found a solution to that doesn’t involve killing bees. I think I may try espaliering my red and white currants à la Lee Reich in order to cover them more easily. I don’t think clove currant can be espaliered, so I guess the maggots win.

  10. cynthia martin says:

    i just became the owner of 3 ribes odoratum — not sure if they are Crandall but they came from my local garden nursery. I’m planting them on a slight hill and hope they’ll sucker to their hearts delight — first heard about them thru you. Thanks.

  11. Valerie Gillman says:

    My first home had this currant(I had looked it up and thought it was the Buffalo Currant)I’ve carried a piece where ever I move. Each year it is heavy laden with black currants and it’s by itself. I used to make jelly from them but some years it had a skunky smell and some years delicious. I don’t know why-maybe because some years I left the tiny stems on. Mine is blooming now and you can smell it quite a ways off.

  12. Ken Druse says:

    Clove currant is one of the great alternatives to forsythia. The fragrance is like cloves and Dianthus (pinks, carnation), and in fact the flowers have the same chemical — eugenol — that makes them all smell that way. One problem: I do not have enough.

  13. Jane says:

    Might this have the same growing requirements as Forsythia that grows here on the hot, windy, alkaline, Mojave Desert? We are Zone 9a (USDA) or 11(Sunset).

    1. Erik says:

      While this is more heat tolerant than the European currants, it is still a northerly plant (midwestern; I don’t think it gets much further south than Arkansas) like most Ribes. It is unlikely to get enough chill hours in the Southwest unless planted on a high mountain. However I am confused by your Forsythia reference. That genus is native to Korea and Manchuria and fairly northern (zone 5–7) and moisture hungry as well. It won’t survive the desert. Are you talking about creosote bushes or some other native flora?

  14. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I scored two tiny suckers of these from a gardening friend in our local garden club who brought this beautiful shrub with her from MI. They are in their third year and really growing well now – covered in blooms and smelling terrific! I have them planted by our front porch so we can enjoy the fragrance. I believe I’ll have fruit this year – going to be sure to look! I was also concerned about it being a host for white pine blister rust since as we are in deep white pine country here along the St. Lawrence River and also read about the disease through Cornell before deciding to plant them. I have not encountered any problems with my own pine (planted on the other side of house and garden) and neither has my gardening friend who lives on nearby Wellesley Island.

  15. charlotte says:

    Everyone asks me what shrub smells so good in my yard each spring and now I know. My mother gave me a small shrub when we built our house 40 years ago, it thrives under the kitchen window. Thank you for the answer.

  16. Joyce Ziemer says:

    Hi Margaret, Your website is wonderful and the photos are just beautiful. About the Crandall Clove Currant bush, we have many beautiful evergreens and live in a wooded area. Should we be concerned about planting the bush? Joyce

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joyce. I don’t know what state you are in and whether the most susceptible pines re in that area — I’d ask the local cooperative extension about risk, perhaps? You can probably do a web search for Ribes ban to see if your state is listed.

  17. Mar-T says:

    Raintree Nursery in Washington State is another source. They have wonderful edible landscaping plants, that’s all they do. I have male and female Crandall in my yard and the currants are also yummy for humans, too.

  18. We grow & sell the species. Its history adds to its charm:
    Found by Meriwether Lewis in 2 locations -”near the narrows of the Columbia.” April 16, 1806, now Klickitat County, Washington, and on July 29, 1805 in Montana. Many different tribes ate the berries – Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Klamath, Montana, Paiute & Ute. Others, Shoshone and Paiute, used the shrub’s inner bark to heal sores and swellings. “Kiowa Indians believed that snakes were afraid of the currant bush and used it as a snakebite remedy.” Other tribes colored clay pots with the fruit. Guy Nesom USDA. English plantsman Wm. Robinson declared it “deserves to be more commonly grown.” (1933) Pressed specimen in Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

    1. margaret says:

      How nice of you to add all this information, Betty. Love the William Robinson quote — he was a horticultural giant!

  19. Goustane says:

    Dear Margaret, thanks a lot for this wonderful article ; I didn’t know this species, only the ” normal ” blackcurrant and the flower-only blackcurrant, and being a French gourmet it was wonderful to learn about this so interesting species …It started me looking for the plant on the internet – where I only found ( and bought ! ) some seeds …And guess what, last week I went for the first time with my son to the dentist , in a neighbourhood that I didn’t know ; it was raining and we were hurrying when I suddenly stopped in my tracks, overpowered by a delicious and unknown scent : and hooray, there it was, a whole hedge of Ribes Aureum ; and Tadam ! Magic ! It had suckers ;-)) ….So I delicately lifted a small one that I eagerly planted back home, and now it seems to be thriving despite the horrible weather we’ve been experiencing in the South-East of France for the last 6 months or so – I live near Lyons, capital of French gastronomy ( Bocuse and other famous chefs a few miles from me ….) . I’ve got one- maybe stupid – question, though : how do you know that the shrub is a male or a female ???? ( Mine is much too small yet to bear fruit …) – oh, and a second, for that matter : are there many different cultivars or just the Crandall one you were talking about ???? Many thanks for your answers in advance, and congratulations on the great job you’re doing – I wish I could visit your garden not only in pictures !!!

    1. Erik says:

      I have only seen “Crandall” (which is self-fruitful if true to name), but I am fairly certain that all members of the species have normal, bisexual flowers. Some currants (like apples) are self-incompatible (meaning that they refuse to inbreed by pollinating themselves, but if planted with another distinct cultivar, both will bear fruit), but all clove/buffalo currants have both anthers and ovaries. The Alpine currant (not worth eating, but sometimes planted as a theoretically ornamental green ball) seems to have separate male and female plants, but that is pretty rare in cultivated Ribes.
      BTW, the flowers are also edible, but it would be hard to pick them without reducing the berry harvest.

  20. Lee says:

    Ribes aureum is actually different from R. odoratum. I grow both. R. aureum is more upright growing and is sometimes used as a rootstock for “tree” red currants and gooseberries. It also fruits very sparsely with small fruits, sometimes called pruterberries. Both R. aureum and R. odoratum have those beautiful, deliciously fragrant flowers. I cover clover currant in my book UNCOMMON FRUITS FOR EVERY GARDEN, as well as other “black” currants and a two dozen other uncommon but easy to grow, delicious fruits.

    1. margaret says:

      You are just so expert, Lee…and to have them both! The National Wildflower Research Center, Texas A&M, UDSA Forest Service and various other references say they are often listed as synonyms, hence my confusion. I should have just called you!

  21. Bonnie says:

    We used to grow them in Mankato, MN where I am from. The rep from Baileys wholesale nursery in St Paul says they don’tgrow and sell them anymore. I like the three f’s about them oh that is 4 f’s flowers fruit and fall color, & fragrance. Does anyone know of a more Northerly source for them? I. Would bet the bees would like them too.

  22. Sue says:

    This is a plant that has been in my family for probably a hundred years. My grandmother had it in her yard. Next thing I knew, my mother had a couple of them in her yard on the farm. Lo and behold, a few years later, I had some in my yard! Then when I moved a couple of times to different areas of the city, I’d take some more diggings with me. So this is one of my most favorite smells in the spring. It’s an heirloom unto itself. Now I have a daughter who also has some growing in her yard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.