Why have I never heard of currants or gooseberries?
Currants and gooseberries are all members of the "ribe" family. Certain varieties of ribes are native to North America but the varieties we commonly know of today came from Europe. Ribes were introduced to the New World almost as soon as the first settlers arrived. By 1899 about 12,000 acres of ribes were being grown in the United States. Now there are merely a few hundred acres. So where did they all go? Why don't people grow them?
Unfortunately for lovers of ribes, the fate of currants in America began to change at the turn of the century when in the late 1890's the fungus that causes White Pine Blister Rust was imported to the New World on infected pine seedlings. This fungus requires two alternating hosts in order to complete its life cycle: any of several 5-needle pines (including white pine) and any susceptible genotype of Ribes. Although the disease does not dramatically effect the berry bushes, the white pines on the other hand are not so lucky. Combine ribes with white pines and sprinkle in the white pine blister rust and you get dead white pines... lots and lots of dead white pines.
Do you remember the old saying, "When white pine was king"? Well up until all the virgin timber was logged out, white pine was king of the northern forests from Maine to the Great Plains. Almost all of the northern cities in the U.S. and Canada were originally built out of white pine. Anything that threatened white pine was therefore a threat to the nation itself. Not surprisingly once the connection between ribes, white pine blister rust and dead white pines was made, the growing of ribes was banned by Congress in 1911.
Once banned, generations passed and the knowledge of these wonderful fruits was lost to our collective memories.
LIFTING THE BAN
Eventually growers and nurseries in Europe developed varieties that were resistant to the rust, and even later some varieties were found to be completely immune. Because of the rise of these new varieties Congress lifted the federal ban in 1966. Individual states, however, continued to regulate the growing of ribes and many states continued the ban altogether.
Today in Michigan all ribes species have to be approved by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Here at Coon's Berry Farm we have worked closely with Mike Bryan from the State of Michigan along with Richard McGinnis from McGinnis Berry Crops to get all of the varieties grown on our farm approved and licensed by the State of Michigan.