Whenever you see me on a LOT flight to Poland I have a huge grin on my face. I am definitely not excited about the long flight or the sardine accommodations. The pretty flight attendants and free alcohol are responsible for a slight smirk but the real excitement is directed at the little wobbly cart that the flight attendant is slowly rolling around. When she asks me what refreshments I wish to consume, I make her repeat the selection twice so that I may clearly hear her say: “sok porzeczkowy,” or currant juice. I sit in that tiny airplane seat, take that first sip of current juice, and a wave of nostalgia hits. Over the years, I have developed a conditioned reflex: every time I taste currants I start to recall fond memories of my summers in Poland. For my friends and me, picking and eating currants was the highlight of the summer vacations.
Living in North America I rarely had the opportunity to indulge myself by eating currants either fresh or in juice form. Whether the berries are black, red or white, they seemed nearly impossible to obtain. A few years ago, however, when a friend invited me to his garden, the search was over. Among his raspberry and saskatoon berry bushes, grew a bush of red currants. I couldn’t stop myself, and fifteen minutes later the bush was plucked dry. Just as some children that crave calcium chew on walls to get their fix, I was craving currants. That day I decided that my humble little garden, at the time composed primarily of perennial flowers, will be converted to a mini currant orchard. The idea was to grow berries that I loved when I was young but could not buy in my local grocery store.
The first step was to tear up all those gorgeous perennial flowers and make room for my first currant bush. My friend donated the bush that I had so carefully cleaned. Next, I had to get the new member of my backyard family some siblings. I was surprised that when I went to a nursery to get some black currants they were not readily available. I then realized that to have a garden with all my childhood memories would require more work then just showing up and paying a few dollars. And so, my quest to find various currants and gooseberries began.
Like any proper adventurer, I began my journey in the library researching the recent history of currants. Black currants are believed to have originated in Poland or the Ukraine, but they are most known in modern history for preventing a massive scurvy outbreak in England during World War II. The berries are incredibly rich in vitamin C; 100g of these berries (a large handful) exceeds 300% of the daily reference intake of vitamin C. In 1942 when nearly all foods rich in vitamin C were unavailable, the British government encouraged black currant agriculture and processing into syrup for civilian consumption, thereby preventing diseases such as scurvy. Apart from their medicinal purposes, the berries are also considered a delicacy. In France. the plant is most known for the aperitif “creme de cassis” that has been a specialty of Dijon for centuries. Yet it is Eastern Europeans that consume the largest quantities of the berry, be it raw, as juice, in jams and jellies, or even as fortified currant wines and liqueurs. So why is it so hard to find currants here in North America? Turns out that in 1966 there was an America-wide ban on the plant as currants can be carriers of white pine blister rust that had posed a huge threat to the local lumber industry. Only recently has the growing ban been lifted and the plant has found new popularity with the fitness industry. For many individuals, it is starting to carve out a niche as an exotic super food, and with very good reason.
Dr. Dorothea Kessler from the University of Bonn has found that black currant juice can decrease certain kidney stones and be used as a treatment for uric acid stone disease. The berries also have a place in preventative medicine. According to New Zealand researchers, because the berries have a large amount of anthocyanins that alleviate oxidative stress, in combination with exercise the berries enhance the body’s immune response to all pathogens, effectively boosting your immune system.
As I keep learning more about the plant I can’t help but make the correlation between currants and what it means to be Polish. For many years the plant was forced to disappear, yet its positive qualities have helped it persevere and as a result it is now getting proper recognition and acceptance. The plant is extremely hardy capable of surviving many climates from tundra to near desert conditions yet it is not a weed and does not propagate aggressively or displace native species. It requires very little care and yields incredibly delicious and healthy fruits that in WW2 played a very important part in protecting the European population from diseases.
I hope that on your next trip to Poland you too will be grinning knowing that you will be given abundant and complementary servings of a super food that health experts worldwide are fighting to get their hands on and health nuts all over the world are spending tons of money on.
Before I finish, here are a few tips how to help you get your currant fix by growing your own:
Believe it or not currants require the same care as many ornamental bushes. If you find bushes for sale in your local nursery you should plant them a minimum 1 meter apart. Ideally you would want your currants to be planted in well drained soil with a few centimeters of mulch on top. I found that the plant does well in full sun and in shade conditions. It requires minimal care and is resistant to heavy pruning.
I personally prefer to grow currants from clippings. The main advantage is that the end product will be identical to the original plant. So if your friend has a very good yielding or tasting currant bush you could sneak into his garden, take a clipping and propagate the same plant without having to dig out the original and answer questions in front of a judge. The process is very simple for currants and is illustrated below.
The best time to do this is once the plant has left dormancy and there are many new green leaves on it. The first step is to clip a branch; if you have to transport the branch make sure to keep the clipping wet. Once you are ready for the rooting phase, trim the branch so that only 3 leaves are left. You may choose to dip the base of the clipping into some rooting hormone; this should make the process fool proof but is not essential. Rooting hormone can be obtained from any home and garden store or any nursery. Finally it is important to place the clipping into a rooting medium; I found that a little bit of peat moss works great. For the next four weeks, make sure that the plant and rooting medium are always moist, so that the fresh leaves don’t dry out. If your leaves are still green by the fourth week you have successfully propagated a currant plant and it should now be ready to go into a bigger pot with potting soil or directly into your intended planting location.
If you are a big fan of currants and have some interesting recipes for currant jams, or baked goods and would like to share them with the world please send them to us and we will be happy to post them in our next edition.