Missouri gooseberry is our state’s most widespread and common gooseberry. People brave its prickly stems to collect its tart, tasty fruits to make pies, jams, and jellies. This thorny shrub is generally 3 feet tall, spreading to 6 feet wide, with clustered trunks and arching branches.
Leaves are simple, alternate, ¾–2½ inches long or wide, overall outline rounded, cut into 3 or 5 lobes that, in turn, are coarsely toothed or bluntly lobed, the base cut back sharply to somewhat rounded; the upper surface green, smooth; the lower surface soft hairy or smooth later; the leaf stalk is ½–1½ inches long, smooth to sparsely hairy.
Bark is dark gray or reddish brown, separating into thin, papery scales curling along the trunk; the wood is hard, heavy, nearly white.
Twigs are slender, pale to dark brown, often reddish; young shoots are light tan, with many dark reddish-brown spines, the lateral twigs short and spurlike (compressed); the spines are solitary or are grouped together in 2s or 3s, sometimes ¼–¾ inch long.
Flowers April–May, single or in clusters of 2–4; stalk lacks joints; flowers ¼–¾ inch long, drooping, slender, smooth to hairy; petals 5, whitish green, longer than broad; stamens 5, much extended and about as long as, or longer than, the length of the flower.
Fruits June–September, a smooth berry, without prickles, starting green and ripening to blackish purple, globe-shaped, about ¼ inch across; seeds 8–25, oval, flattened, black.
Similar species: Not counting cultivated gooseberries, Missouri has 4 species in genus Ribes (pronounced RHY-beez) that may be encountered in natural habitats. The Missouri gooseberry is our most common and widespread species. Here are the others:
- Prickly gooseberry, or dogberry (R. cynobati), is uncommon to scattered, mostly in the eastern half of the state. It grows on calcareous substrates such as ledges and crevices of shaded, north-facing bluffs. The fruits of this species are greenish to pale red and have slender, stiff prickles. In Missouri, this plant usually has dense bristles, or slender prickles, along the stems, but elsewhere, the degree of hairiness or spininess can vary.
- Golden currant, or Missouri or buffalo currant (R. odoratum), is uncommon in the western part of the Ozarks, and it has also been introduced in Barton and Jefferson counties and in the city of St. Louis. It occurs on ledges and tops of bluffs and on roadsides and railroads. Stems lack bristles or spines; flowers are in clusters of 3–10, with the flower stalks jointed toward the tip. Its flowers, especially in the afternoon, have a strong fragrance, described as a combination of spicy cloves and sweet carnations. The fruits are smooth, yellow to greenish yellow, becoming black at maturity.
- American black currant, or eastern black currant (R. americanum) is uncommon and known only from Schuyler County, where it grows in a deep muck fen along the Chariton River, and (historically) from St. Louis city and county. Stems lack bristles or spines; the leaves are dotted with resinous glands on the undersurface; the flowers are in clusters of 6–15 flowers, with the flower stalks jointed toward the tip. The fruits are smooth, black, and not very tasty.
Habitat and Conservation
Gooseberries are a favorite fruit for pies, cobblers, jams, and jellies. Like rhubarb, gooseberries can have an intensely tart flavor that, most people agree, requires plenty of sugar to balance.
Many say the fruits are best picked when they’re still green and have the punchiest sour flavor. Other people prefer the ripe reddish or purplish berries, which lack the tangy tartness. In any given recipe, green gooseberries may easily require twice as much sugar as the darker, ripe ones.
Because birds and other animals also like gooseberries, green ones may be the only kind you can find.
When you’re picking gooseberries, part of the stem usually pulls off with the berry; plus, a little dried “point” usually remains on the other end of the berry (it’s what’s left of the flower). Both the stems and the flower remnants must be plucked off of each berry before it can be used. The fact that people gladly do this labor attests to how much they enjoy the flavor of gooseberries.
If your gooseberry recipe involves cooking the berries, you may strain the cooked berries through a sieve or food mill to remove the stems, seeds, and other bits, creating a smooth purée that can be mixed with sugar. You can use this if you’re making a frozen yogurt or sorbet or are folding it into whipped cream to make a dessert called a “fool.”
Green gooseberries make a delicate, crystal-clear pink jelly that is ambrosial on biscuits and other hot breads. Gooseberry jam is equally tasty but can have a much different texture. It is possible to make jelly and jam at the same time by pouring off the berries’ cooking water and using a small amount of powdered fruit pectin and sugar to turn that into jelly, and then straining the berries and using their pulp, plus sugar, to make jam. Some people don’t strain the berries for jam, producing a chewier, seedier spread.
More adventuresome cooks can create gooseberry relishes, conserves, chutneys, cream cheese spreads, salsas, and meat, poultry, and fish sauces, as well as sodas, cocktails, and other beverages.
Gooseberry leaves may be used raw, in a tossed salad or in slaw, and the young dried leaves may be used for making tea. Pick the young leaves and allow three months to dry. To make tea, add a teaspoon of crushed gooseberry leaves to one cup of hot water, and let it steep several minutes.
Another name for this fruit is feverberry, because a tea made with the crushed berries was believed to help break a fever. Try a teaspoon to one cup of hot water (adding a sweetener is probably a good idea here).
Globally, there are about 150 species in genus Ribes, and they are often divided (in an oversimplified way) into “currants” (with jointed flower stalks) and “gooseberries” (with unjointed flower stalks). Numerous cultivated strains of currants and gooseberries have been developed by plant breeders. Favorite cultivated gooseberries usually are derived from the Old World species R. uva-crispa (sometimes called R. grossularia), which is often hybridized with the North American species R. hirtellum (often called the American or hairy-stem gooseberry, it is not native to Missouri).
For many decades, students and alumni of Columbia, Missouri's Hickman High School have cheered their sports teams by chanting "Strawberry shortcake, gooseberry pie! V-I-C-T-O-R-Y! Are we it? Well I guess yes! We're the Kewpies of HHS!"
Gooseberry shrubs furnish excellent cover for small mammals and birds. Birds that eat berries, including gooseberries, include catbirds, thrashers, robins, and waxwings. Foxes, skunks, squirrels, and mice also eat the fruits and ultimately disperse the seeds away from the parent plant.
Many birds and mammals relish the fruits of gooseberry, despite the thorny stems.
Many types of bees, flies, butterflies (notably the brown elfin), moths (notably hummingbird and clearwing moths), and wasps visit the flowers for nectar, pollen, or both. As a spring-flowering shrub, gooseberry is an important nectar source for insects that are active in early spring.
Even hummingbirds may be seen visiting gooseberry flowers for nectar.
Gray comma butterfly caterpillars eat gooseberry leaves; the early stages feed on the undersides of the leaves, so it’s harder to see them.
In the autumn, gooseberry bushes catch and hold dead leaves in their low-lying branches, giving good cover for the soil and for various kinds of small animals.
Gooseberries and currants, now placed in their own family (the Grossulariaceae), used to be considered part of the saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae). But botanists using molecular (DNA) evidence have determined that the woody plants that used to be in the saxifrage family deserve to be split away into other families.
Many species of gooseberries and currants have been the subject of an aggressive eradication campaign in parts of the country where white pine grows and is harvested for lumber. The shrubs are an alternate host of the white pine blister rust, which was unintentionally brought in from Europe around 1900. This fungus attacks and kills white pine, which is an important timber tree in eastern North America. Like many other rusts, it needs two hosts to complete its life cycle; its alternate host is various species of Ribes. Since Missouri is not in the range of white pine, other than as ornamental plantings, the blister rust has not been considered a threat here. Elsewhere, however, state laws may forbid the cultivation of gooseberries and currants.