Prickly gooseberry occurs mostly in the eastern half of Missouri. Its spine-covered berries turn reddish purple when ripe. Despite the prickles, they are edible. It is a low, straggly shrub with rigid, spreading or trailing branches. It is generally armed with simple reddish or black slender spines along the stem.
Leaves are simple, alternate or clustered, 1–2 inches long or wide, overall shape is round to broadly egg-shaped, the base cut back sharply to slightly rounded, the margin with 3 or 5 lobes, lobes with teeth rounded to pointed; both surfaces hairy; undersurface more densely hairy and paler green than above; the leaf stalk slender, ½–1 inch long, hairy.
Trunk has the outer bark thin, papery, tan to brown, with spines (modified leaf stalks) and few to many recurved prickles (prickles that bend away and back; these are outgrowths of the bark). The inner layer of bark is reddish brown or purplish, smooth, with numerous light-colored pores. The wood is hard, fine-grained, white, with a dark pith.
Twigs are slender, at first tan to brown and hairy, later gray to almost black and smooth; spines slender, solitary or in groups of 2 or 3, straight, to ¾ inch long; young twigs often with numerous, slender reddish or black spines. In Missouri, this plant usually has dense bristles, or slender prickles, along the stems, but elsewhere, the degree of hairiness or spininess can vary.
Flowers April–June, single or in clusters of 2–4; the stalk bearing the flower clusters is ¼–1¼ inches long, lacking joints, hairs present, sometimes gland-tipped; petals 5, yellowish green; stamens 5, barely showing beyond the petals. The ovary (the swollen base of the flower, which will become the fruit) is spiny.
Fruits July–September, reddish purple, globe-shaped, ¼–½ inch in diameter, armed with long stiff prickles; seeds 10–20, dark brown.
Similar species: Not counting cultivated gooseberries, Missouri has 4 species in genus Ribes (pronounced RYE-beez) that may be encountered in natural habitats. The prickly gooseberry is the only one with prickles on the fruits. Here are the others:
- Missouri gooseberry (R. missouriense) is the most widespread gooseberry in the state. The fruits of this species are green, ripening to red or purple, and are smooth (they lack prickles). The drooping flowers have long stamens that extend far beyond the petals.
- 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.
Although some other types of North American gooseberries may have painfully pointy prickles, the spines on the fruits of this species don’t cause people too much trouble.
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. Another way to cope with this task is to simmer the berries, then run them through a sieve or food mill to remove the seeds and stems.
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).
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, chipmunks, 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.