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072619-blm-lif-blackcurrants

Black currants are ready for the harvest at the Refuge Food Forest in Normal.

They’re sweet, they’re tart, some say they’re spicy. “They are uniquely enjoyable,” says University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator Jenna Smith. And they are ready for the harvest at the Refuge Food Forest in Normal.

Black currants, once a popular garden fruit rivaling blueberries and strawberries, lost their footing in the United States because of a federal ban on production that lasted through the 1960s. Older cultivars hosted a disease fatal to pine trees.

Statewide bans still exist in Ohio and a few states further east, but with resistant cultivars like ‘Consort,’ ‘Crusader,’ and ‘Titania,’ and the fact that the disease is very rare in Illinois, gardeners are again experimenting with this lost fruit.

Nutritionists love this super fruit, because it has four times more vitamin C than oranges, and twice the antioxidants of blueberries. Most recipes calling for black currants are jams, jellies and infusions of sauces and drinks. Smith suggests using them fresh in oatmeal, fruit salad, or smoothies.

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Gardeners love this fruit because it is a big producer. University of Illinois Extension program coordinator Reid Young says the crop at the Food Forest is a good one “and now is the time to harvest. Between our four different cultivars, you’ll find some berries with a tart punch, while others are sweet, and even some with mild flavors.” Young encourages the public to not let all these fruits go to the birds.

Black currants can be an excellent addition to any backyard garden by following a few tips on their growing requirements. They do not like the heat. It is best to plant them in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. Our heavier clay soils are good at retaining the moisture they need, but it is best to add mulch to prevent them from drying out. At time of planting, add composted manure and top dress (spread on the top of the roots) annually because black currants do best with added nutrition.

Prune currants during the dormant season (late winter). For the first three years, remove four to five of the weakest canes, and any with damage. On mature plants, leave behind nine to 12 canes of first-, second- and third -year growth. Canes older than three years will not produce fruit.

To sample black currants, you can pick your own, for free, at the Refuge Food Forest in One Normal Plaza Park, located at 701 E. Lincoln St. This collaboration between University of Illinois Extension and the town of Normal includes 1.4 acres of organically managed produce.

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Kelly Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.

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