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  • Jennifer Jewell

APRIL: R is for Ribes & Garden Literacy

For the love of Flowering Ribes: some plants are old friends, some are still flames....

Spring in all its color and exuberance and vagaries - I associate it with (the garden of course) children's books - specifically, I associate it with alphabet and other early reading books - you know the kind I mean: "A is for Apple" - "Each Peach Pear Plum".....from my own childhood and from my girls', I have quite a collection of them. I love them all.

They are narratives and educations complete within themselves.

At the California Native Plant Conservation Conference in Los Angeles, CA in late January, I saw and fell in love with (and purchased for two friends expecting babies this year) a truly lovely, evocative and original Alphabet poster of this genre (the lens on this one being that of California native plants) from the talented Coyote Brush Studios team.

As I wrapped the first one as a gift for the expecting parents - in the rush and tumble of spring bulbs, spring fruit trees, spring frosts, spring rain, spring wind, spring heat (in a word: Spring) - I wondered to myself: How is it that we are nurtured and weaned using plants and nature as integral to our literacy and yet we are so often completely plant blind (and often plant illiterate) in adulthood? How did the integration of nature and her abundantly generous plant kingdom go from being essential to our being civilized to becoming taken for granted, not taken at all or taken merciless advantage of in many so-called "First World" cultures? (You've read or heard of the language acquisition studies that document this - for instance, how we universally as a species point out to our babies colors, plants, animals - the building blocks of nature - first. Only then do we move on to the elements of the built world....) I find it an interesting (if depressing) inquiry. Perhaps, once we go from learning our alphabet with the complexity, beauty and richness of the natural world as our scaffolding, we're literally unschooled from this in our "First World" schooling?

I'm not sure....But I know this, I love learning about plants - as a gardener, as a person, as an appreciator. I think every now and then I will share a little bit of this with you as I explore it myself.

As April is the last month for a bit with the letter R in its name (which means, as I was taught, we're now past reliably good fresh oyster season) - I think I will start there:

R is for Ribes.

Some plants are like old friends and you are very glad to see them when they come back around each year - reading the landscape for what should be popping up next in line; other plants are more like old flames - you still get that rush of a quickened pulse. Some plant genera simply move us more than others - for mysteries we don't necessarily need to understand.

For me Ribes are among these.

The spring native woodland garden has many bright stars in the form of shrubs: Ceanothus and Mahonia come immediately to mind, Philadelphus and Rhododendron come a bit later. But look a little closer and you will see how lovely the Ribes are as well this time of year. Our native Ribes are far more soft-spoken but have equally nice things to offer as their brighter companions of the season.

Do you listen to Cultivating Place as a podcast?

Ribes are perhaps best enjoyed in more private, contemplative spots in the garden than bigger, bolder shrubs. Near a bench? Close beside a pathway for easy viewing and touching? Their delicate fragrant flowers and foliage want such close encounters (but do note the possibility of thorns!)

Appealing to people and wildlife, Ribes - placed-well - can play an dynamic role in the garden year-round.

Native R. speciosum in John's Canyon Creek garden.

While there is some botanical discussion as to classifications, Ribes is generally considered the only genus in the gooseberry (Grossulariaceae) family and according to the Jepson Manual of California Plants it includes 120 species, with many more cultivars. Commonly known as currants or gooseberries, Ribes are informally designated as currants if they do not bear thorns or gooseberries if they do. They are all are prized for their ornamental value, the wildlife they attract and their flavorful edible berries.

The plants grow throughout the world and are used medicinally for a variety of things, including menstrual and menopausal discomfort, by several cultures. Apparently, the name Ribes comes down to us through Latin from the original Arabic. Ribes are known hosts for the larva of butterfly species, but they are also known hosts of White Pine Blister Rust, so this is something to keep in mind and learn more about in your own area.

Many, many Ribes are native to California. I had several pink flowering varieties throughout my previous garden as well as the yellow flowering R. aureum and the tiny red flowering R. viburnifolium (aka Catalina Island currant, Catalina Perfume, etc.), the spicy fragrant foliage of which is a good ground cover in partial shade under un-irrigated oaks.

There are many more I could and would like to grow, including fuchsia flowered R. speciosum, with its showy red pendant blooms all in a row beneath its branches in early spring; the white flowered form (R. indecorum) which is said to bear very good berries; the Canyon Gooseberry (R. menziesii), with its petite little red and white blooms, and more….

Perhaps I felt drawn to write about them this month, because they are flowering now, but my current garden is without shade and so....without currants.

Above: Yellow-flowering Ribes aureum

A nice handful of native Ribes will thrive in most garden conditions, but if I had to choose one to start with, I would choose one of the pink flowered forms – specifically R. sanguineum, which is found easily in the trade. R. malvaceum or R. nevadense are both very nice as well and possible to find at specialty native plant nurseries or native plant sales.

All three of these pink flowering forms are thornless and bear graceful pendulous pink flower clusters flushing from reddish-deep-pink to pale-pink to white for quite some time from late winter to early spring. The leaves are soft, a little sticky and when brushed or bruised emit a resinous, pleasant woodland scent. The plants prefer a bit of shade especially from late afternoon sun, and will tolerate full summer drought conditions or irrigated garden conditions - very nice, tolerant plus for those of us in summer dry areas. They will go dormant and loose their leaves if they receive no summer water, but they perk right back up in fall with first rain. In time, these plants will grow to upright, shapely open shrubs. They can make very nice single focal points, or play well tucked into other shrubs along a busy planting. While they are "deer resistant", the deer in my old neighborhood did lightly browse the newest growth in late winter sometimes.

But that's ok with me - Ribes and deer and browsing and spring are all part of this relationship, and our literacy in it, we call gardening. R is for Ribes. L is for literate.... and love - of all plants and their very own narratives, may we all hope to learn to read them best we can.

I hope you didn't mind my little foray into a plant exploration - I'm guessing if you've read this far, you didn't.

This month's CP conversationalist-of-note has to go to Bobbi, who sent me this: "Hi Jennifer, I listen to past programs of Cultivating Place while gardening. I have recently listened to at least 7 hours worth while cleaning my poor greenhouse. It was a veritable jungle with years of overgrowth and weedy invaders. I'm almost done and ready for the electricians to renovate the power - the outlets, the fans, the heating blankets. YAY! You have been my partner in success! Thank you! - Bobbi, Oakland, CA"

You all have no idea what this kind of encouragement means to me - so thank you, Bobbi. I can't wait to see pictures! Thank you all, as always, for reading/listening - for being in this conversation.




In April of 2018, Cultivating Place has a NEW SOUND! A beautiful new Cultivating Place song composed and performed by MaMuse, two talented Northern California singer-song writer women. On the song, with powerful lyrics, they are accompanied by Joe Craven and Sam Bevan.

I can't wait for you to hear it and tell me what you think. And I want honesty (gentle honesty, but honesty) - I really hope you do like it.

In programs this month, look forward to spring leaps with Emily Murphy, whose new book "Grow What You Love" really taps into the sheer joy of the gardening impulse; Emily is followed by a deep history conversation with two key garden/horticultural voices at Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, who would turn 275 this month; the third week of April is California Native Plant Week and we visit with a native plant gardener who expresses his faith in his gardening impulse; and finally, we look forward to summer vacation with the American Horticultural Society and their annual National Children & Youth Gardening Symposium - if you're a garden educator, head's up on this one!

Thank you as always for listening, your comments and emails, and for your support. Cultivating Place is a deeply grateful community and listener supported endeavor.




Above: R. viburnifolium (aka Catalina Island currant, Catalina Perfume, etc.)

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