The USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon maintains, among other things, the world collection of Ribes cultivars as well as their wild counterparts. The genus Ribes includes currants, gooseberries, and jostaberries (a black currant-gooseberry cross). Ribes species are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and in cooler, shorter-growing-season climates such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Northern Europe, and Russia, black currants have been especially prevalent in cuisine and culture through the ages. While the collection in Corvallis may not contain every Ribes variety known to humanity, it comes pretty darn close with rows and rows filled with hundreds of bushes.
Nine germplasm repositories in the US are publicly-funded operations with a mandate to preserve and protect clonal plant materials for the benefit of farmers and citizens around the world. The folks working at the repository farms in Corvallis spend most of their time doing routine orchard work (planting, irrigating, pruning, weeding, grafting, etc.), but they also dedicate a portion of their time to documenting yeild, vigor, disease resistance, cold hardiness, and other characteristics of the different varieties, and they work to educate researchers, farmers, and the general public in small and large groups.
The living plant material stored in these collections is available worldwide in the event of a disease outbreak or harsh-weather die off that leaves farmers in need of stock to replant economically and culturally significant food crops. It’s also a great resource for folks that want to revive heirloom varieties of crops. In fact a couple weeks ago, an organic farmer spent a few hours touring and tasting the Ribes collection in an effort to identify varieties that might be viable for the local market.
I’ve visited the Corvallis repository twice before in the fall to admire and pick quince (see archived posts here and here), but I hadn’t ever see the Ribes collection in it’s full, fruiting glory. Last week was probably the height of the season for most of the plants, so I called up my friend and neighbor, Joseph Postman, who’s a plant pathologist at the facility, and he graciously met me at the gate and gave me a quick tour of the collection.
The rows were organized by type: ornamentals, jostaberries, gooseberries, red currants, white currants, black currants, and wild species (that I didn’t get a chance to photograph because the bushes were being irrigated). There were usually three bushes of each cultivar with a marker that provides the variety name, geographic origin, and other information. The diversity even among bushes in the same broad categories was staggering.
My parents have a couple of red currant bushes in their yard that have never really amounted to much, so when I saw plants in the Ribes collection with huge, dangly, pearly strands of fruit, my eyes about popped out of my head. Obviously, these varieties must have been bred over the years to enhance the currant clusters for easier, more efficient harvest.
My favorite of the red currants was ‘Tatran’ because of it’s long, fruity dangles and beautiful, large, almost purplish leaves.
There were also plenty of bushes that only had a few currants hanging on each little thread of a stem, the kind that would take a good long while to accumulate a decent amount.
Black currants were new to me. As Joseph and I wandered through the many rows full of these dark beauties, we sampled quite a few. I really wish I had a finer palette and/or a better flavor vocabulary because try as I might, I couldn’t find the words to describe that black currant taste. (Some of you have probably tried the black currant-based beverage called Ribena that’s apparently popular in northern parts of North America and Europe.) Texture-wise, black currants are much meatier and less moist than their red and white cousins.
I didn’t document which variety this bush was, but the fruits were huge!
The gooseberries in the collection came in many different colors (wine, blush, pale green, and overripe yellowish), shapes (perfectly round to elongated watermelons), and sizes (smaller than a dime to bigger than a quarter). Some of the fruits were spiked with visible little “hairs”, and others appeared to be totally smooth. Some of the bushes were adorned with really gnarly thorns.
Joseph let me pick more or less whatever I wanted, so I spent about an hour gathering a little of this and a little of that. In the end, my big bowl was nothing if not colorful. I’ll be posting more about what I cooked up with this bounty soon.
The USDA Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis is having an open house on Thursday, July 17, 2014 from 1-4 pm during which time anyone can tour and sample their way through the world collection (!) of blueberry cultivars. Sounds pretty great, right? I would love to be there, but I’ll be embarking on a road trip the next day, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to swing it. For more information about the open house or anything else, feel free to call the front desk 541-738-4200.