Article: Featured California Native Plant

Chaparral Currant - Fabulous Aromatic Bloomer and Wildlife Magnet

Genus/species: Ribes malvaceum Family: Glossulariaceae (Gooseberry)

Description: Here it is November, a month of trees going bare and cold wet on the ground in other places, but the chaparral currant bushes in my garden are busting out hundreds of flowers. The small, pink-tinged, white flowers of this hardy California native are jammed together into hanging, chandelier-like, 2 inch long clusters. Stick your face in their vicinity, or rub the fresh green leaves between your fingers, and the intoxicating, spice sweet aroma particular to California chaparral will be your reward. The nectar-rich, flared tube flowers are the earliest bloomers of the California currants and gooseberries; those in my garden started showing flower buds in late September.

Hummingbirds drink the nectar of this plant, and during autumn, when other Ribes are not yet blooming, California's resident Anna's hummingbird has been known to wildly defend the territory of a chaparral currant shrub. The nickel-sized, lobed leaves have a finely quilted texture; native bees and butterflies rest and warm themselves on the surface, and tailed copper butterflies use this as a host plant.

The smooth, terra cotta and manzanita red colored bark of the branches split open and peel back to reveal a brown, satin finish underskin. The growth pattern is open and initially erect; then the branches drape into a graceful network. Mature height is anywhere between 5 to 8 feet and 4 to 6 feet wide. After a flowering period that can last from fall through winter and even into early spring, frosted, dark blue fruits appear that appeal to quail, hermit thrushes, robins, finches, towhees, California thrashers, scrub jays, and phainopeplas.

Cultivation: This summer deciduous shrub is drought tolerant after establishment, and will keep its green longer if given a moderate amount of supplemental spring and summer water. In coastal areas, this plant can grow in full sun or part shade; inland, it needs filtered shade. R. malvaceum is cold hardy to ~10 degrees, is not finicky about soil type, but requires good drainage. If needed, improve drainage and soil structure, amend soil of general area before planting with 2 inch deep carpet layer of organic compost. Building a raised bed would be helpful, but is not necessary. Mulch with leaf litter or compost to retain moisture and maintain eveness of soil temperature. It is not necessary to fertilize this plant; the nutrients from either the amendment, or the mulch is sufficient. This plant is essentially pest free.

Comments: Ribes malvaceum was used in several ways by California native peoples. The Tongva called ribes Kochar, and made pemmican using the dried berries. When food was scarce, the leaves and twigs would be boiled and eaten or added to acorn mush. The berries are high in vitamin C, phosphorus, and iron. The Cahuilla ate the berries fresh. The Luiseno and Tongva made decoctions of the roots and dried leaves, and applied this to aching teeth. Currants were used for stomach ache remedy. Some people make jelly out of the fruit, which can taste bland when fresh, but beware that too much has an emetic effect. Some herbal enthusiasts use the leaves to make an aromatic tea.

Ribes malvaceum is not well known as a garden plant yet, but is well worth the search to obtain it. The cut branches work quite beautifully for display in vases, and will bring a lovely scent to your home.

— Corinne Louise Greenberg