PLANT OF THE WEEK #68: Ribes sanguineum

One Mediterranean climate flowering shrub I would not be without is the red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum. You might associate it with English gardens, but actually this shrub is native to parts of western North America, which has a climate similar in many ways to ours in southern Australia. In the wild, they grow at elevations from sea level to 2400m, making them very adaptable in a wide cross section of southern Australian gardens. 

This unassuming plant steps into the limelight for a few weeks around the spring equinox (in my climate), when its twigs suddenly burst into blossom, either with, or slightly before the foliage unfurls.

There are two subspecies, which have given rise to several different cultivars and colours. The most commonly seen ‘wild’ type is a pleasant enough dusty pink colour. There is a white cultivar, I suppose dating from a time when ‘Alba’ varieties of any plant were the fashion, but looked at objectively, it’s a rather objectionable shade of white, bordering on beige. For my money, the best cultivars are the raspberry red ones. There are several available in Europe, but in Australia we are limited to ‘King Edward VII’. And even then, this cultivar is chronically mislabelled in the horticultural trade. Many are times I have seen that label applied to an ordinary ‘wild’ pink. 

The more common colour of Ribes sanguineum

This misidentification is a mystery to me, because this plant is an absolute doddle to propagate from cuttings. Stick a twig of any size in the ground, at any time of the year except when it is very soft and sappy in spring, and your twig will take in no time flat.

That is precisely how I acquired my own bushes, as truncheon cuttings from a neighbour. My bushes are a rich, dark cherry red, very densely flowered, and they flower well before the foliage emerges. My plant is much more consistent with the true ‘King Edward VII’ than the majority in the trade, so I have distributed it to several nurseries to propagate it under that name. A bit naughty, I know, but at least it means there will be a superior strain available to gardeners.

Ribes sanguineum is a very amenable plant to grow. It will grow and flower well in full sun or partial shade. Although it will grow in quite dense shade, it doesn’t flower well in such a position. It will grow in quite poor soils, but if you can improve the soil with some organic matter, so much the better, as it frequently grows on the edges of forests in the wild. With a bit of extra humus in the soil, it is quite resilient in the face of dry summers. 

Like its cousin the blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum), the entire bush of R. sanguineum has a weird, curranty smell. Personally, I love it, because it takes me straight back to my English grandmother’s garden. However, I can imagine for the uninitiated, it could be construed as a little offensive. 

Like so many shrubs, Ribes sanguineum needs management to look its best. The received wisdom is to treat it like an edible currant; that is, allow it to take its natural form, and remove a proportion of old, tired wood back to the base every winter. Grown in this way, it will grow to around 3x3m in size. I prefer to shape mine into a ball with hedge trimmers in summer, after the first flush of wood has hardened, and give it a tickle in winter if needed, always keeping in mind that this shrub flowers most prolifically on wood produced the  previous growing season, so hard pruning equals no flowers. In this way, my Ribes functions as a shape in the garden, for the 49 weeks of the year when it’s not in flower. Treated this way, it can be kept at around 1.2m in height and width.

In addition to the three weeks of floral colour, and the useful shape I clip it into, my Ribes also has presentable autumn colour. It’s not a top tier autumn colour plant, like an Acer or Fothergilla is, but it modestly contributes something to the overall effect, with shades of matte copper, gold and rust. When hedged as I do, a sufficient quantity of winter twigs is produced to make a visual impact. The tracery of the stout twigs is pleasing, and the warm, burnt umber colour, while not as thrilling as a Cornus, definitely adds something to the overall scene. 

This is a shrub which asks little of its owner, and tries its best to contribute to the garden. It’s not a megastar, or even a prominent character. But it is a good support act, which is a useful role in itself. 


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Discussion

  1. Hi Simon, looking at your first picture I realised I have been victim to one of those unscrupulous (or ignorant) nurseries and my alleged King Edward VII is in fact the regular type. It is a beautiful shrub in its own right and in full bloom now but nowhere as intense as yours in colour. Shame….

    1. Pull it out and start again, Gilles! They are so quick and easy, you’ll be glad you replaced it. Try asking Judy at Alameda Homestead Nursery.

  2. Beautiful bloom. Nice picture.

  3. I never imagined that you could trim it over in summer without compromising the bloom the next spring. I love that idea of it providing a shape when it’s not flowering. It could sure benefit from that extra arrow in its quiver

    1. Thanks for the care tips, Simon. I’ve had this plant for a long time, albeit the plain sister rather than the show stopper in your great pics. A family member insisted I have it because our nana had it growing in her Ballan garden back in the day. Clipping and shaping it have improved its presence and performance. Protection from hot sun on the south side of the house has also made for a happier performer. It holds its place maybe more for nostalgic reasons than huge garden impact.

    2. Absolutely. It had never occurred to me, either, until I saw some people in my town had shaped theirs, coincidentally, as a ‘job lot’ with a bunch of other shrubs, They still flowered, and they looked refreshingly tidy and dense in summer.

  4. And that pic, with the autumn foliage, is a total stunner, btw

    1. Ain’t it lovely?

  5. Ornamental Ribes are used as hedges in parts of Canada and perhaps also in other places. They can be just slightly weedy in high rainfall parts of southern Australia.
    Maybe small birds would love Ribes when clipped and dense?

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