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Ribes are a winter wonder for Marin Gardens

  • Barbara Robertson
  • Santa could hardly bring a better gift to a Marin gardener: flowers that bloom in winter and early spring. Long, cascading or fuchsia-like flowers in, red, pink, yellow or white loved by native bees and hummingbirds. Edible fruit devoured by songbirds. Drought tolerant. Somewhat deer resistant. Hardy. Low maintenance. Showy. Plants that grow under oak trees and are not fussy about soil type.

    It isn’t a fantasy. The plants are ribes.

    Although commonly known by the fruit they produce, currants or gooseberries, native ribes are more often grown as ornamentals than edibles.

    One of the most striking is Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, a currant. This lovely native sports white or pink racemes — grape-like clusters — or inflorescence of musky scented flowers often a half-foot long amid soft-green foliage that resembles maple leaves. Blue or blue-black berries follow. Members of the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society have reported seeing the species bloom in January along Inverness Ridge and in Tomales Bay State Park.

    There are numerous selections within this variety, including the “Inverness White” and “Heart’s Delight” cultivars, both Marin natives. With white flower clusters that bloom from January to March, “Inverness White” signals the coming of spring, while “Heart’s Delight’s” pink racemes arrive in spring. Both grow about 6 feet high and around and are often available in local nurseries.

    The fuchsia-like flowers on the gooseberry are less showy than on its ribes sisters and gooseberries have thorns. Thus, gooseberries are rarely seen in gardens. But, gooseberries have reason for being. The fruit is often edible. The flowers attract hummingbirds, bees and pollinators. Birds that ignore feeders often like the fruit. And, the spiny, twiggy, mid-sized shrubs can be useful as green fences as long as they are kept away from walkways. They typically grow 2- to 6-feet tall and wide.

    Look for the delicate red and white flowers of Ribes californicum (California gooseberry) blooming alongside Lucas Valley Road and near the entrance to Cascade Canyon in February. Also known as hillside gooseberry, the plant tolerates dry shade and seasonal flooding.

    These are but a few of the startling number of ribes possibilities. Their Grossulariaceae family tree includes nearly 150 species, most deciduous, some evergreen.

    We checked with a few native plant nurseries in the area and found several ribes varieties in stock, although that can vary from month to month. Here are three more for Santa to consider: the long drooping pink racemes burst forth on the Ribes malvaceum “Dancing Tassels” from November to March, which means this California native currant gives your backyard habitat a winter hummingbird feeder and pollinator. One of the few currants to be evergreen and low growing, Ribes viburnifolium (Catalina perfume) works as ground cover and erosion control under native oaks. The arching branches reach 2- to 3-feet tall and carry tiny maroon flowers from late winter to early spring. Ribes speciosum, a showy gooseberry, blooms from late winter to early spring with bright red, fuchsia-like flowers. The thorny branches are arching and grow 4- to 6-feet tall and wide.

    Ribes do well in full sun or partial shade. Although drought tolerant, some require moderate or regular amounts of water in dry summers. Drainage is important. Warm and wet can kill them. To shape the plants, maintain growth and encourage flowering next year, prune soon after they flower.

    Unfortunately, there is one small catch worth noting: Ribes are alternate hosts on which the fungus white pine blister rust (Cronarium ribicola) completes its development. Fortunately, this type of rust is more common in the high Sierras than in Marin. And in any case, the effectiveness of removing ribes to control rust is questionable.

    It’s a small amount of naughty, given all the nice benefits of these wonderful native plants. Hope your Santa agrees. The time to plant sibes is now — December through February.