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Clove Currant, photo by C. Quish

I love a plant that come with a story. I know every plant someone ever gave me and the reason for such  a gift, or to commemorate a celebration, or maybe a mentor sharing a piece of their garden. My clove currant shrub has such a story.

During the 1990s I was seeking to improve my knowledge of perennials by taking a local gardening class at a little library in my home town. The two ladies imparting their wisdom were how we say, very experienced with growing just about everything, and very willing to share with those less in the know at the time. The last class was a tour of their properties of very well established gardens in sun, in shade and in between, with popular plants and some unusual ones. There was also a  large vegetable garden in the sunny back field filled with peas, onions, rhubarb and lettuce  pretty well along even though it was still April. They were very good gardeners with the know-how to grow vegetables as well as trees, shrubs and perennials. I don’t think they ever met a plant they didn’t like or knew how to grow and propagate.

As we walked the property, one spoke of each plant, noting its character, benefits and highlights. One arching shrub was near the back door of her house, in full bloom with yellow tubular flowers. I could smell it before I saw it. Wisps of clove filled the air, not too sweet or flowery, just enticing. Most in the class had never seen this gangling, somewhat messy shrub before, but the flowers and scent made me like it. Now at the driveway, the tour was concluding with the opportunity to take in the vistas they had created. I now realized the gardens I was touring were across the street from my husband’s deceased grandmother’s house and stated it out loud. The instructor and owner smiled, remembering how 40 years before, she was welcomed as a new neighbor by my husband’s grandmother, with a plant dug from her own garden. It was a piece of the clove currant. Grandma Ferry said she should plant it near the back door, as was hers, so you could smell its heavenly scent when in bloom.

A few weeks later, after the clove currant finished blooming, the instructor came to my house with the gift of a piece of her clove currant bush. She said the plant has history with our family and she needed to share it with us. I planted it near the back door, and now 20 years later it has grown large and is still going strong to tell its story another day.

Scroll down for cultural information.

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Clove Currant, (Ribes odoratum)

Clove currant’s botanical name is Ribes odoratum. It is a native plant in the central and eastern United States and hardy to zone 4. Its size is manageable,  growing to between 6 and 8 feet tall and about as wide. Responds well to rejuvenation pruning and cutting off suckers as is tends to spread from its roots. It is soil adaptable preferring a pH of 6.1 to 7.8 and does best in full sun, taking some shade, too.

Leaves are interesting with 5-lobes on long petioles and a blue-green in color. It is a deciduous shrub in the same family as gooseberry and currants and does produce an edible black berry in July, but only on female plants. Clove currant is dioecious, with male and female plants. If berries are wanted, plant at least one male and one female for pollination purposes.

The Ribes genus are the alternate host for the disease white pine blister rust. There were quarantine laws put into effect in the early 1900’s to eliminate all plantings of any currants or gooseberries in gardens and in the wild, to protect the lumber industry. It proved to not work and goes unenforced in many states. White pine blister rust can cause chlorotic spots on the tops of the current leaves and orange pustules that develop on the underside of leaves, as is typical of rust fungi. Leaves will drop prematurely.  Other leaf spot diseases my occur, but none are common problems with Clove Currant.

-Carol Quish