Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Currants and Gooseberries

Grossulariaceae Ribes, Spp.

By Adam Benfer

The currant family of shrubs produce a flavorful fruit, sometimes sweat and other times tart, historically used by many Native North American tribes, early European settlers, and continues to be a rare, popular treat. Varieties of currant bushes are indigenous to both America and Europe. The gooseberry is just another name for several of the many varieties of currants that grow all over North America. The name ‘gooseberry’ is a direct translation of the Kiowa, Omaha, and Ponca terms for these fruits (Kindscher 1987: 196). Other common names derived from each particular species of currant include the wax, bear, squaw, buffalo, clove, black, Missouri, golden, and flowering currants


Currant bushes tend to be 1 to 2 m (3 to 6 ft) tall with erect or arching branches. The roundish 3-lobed leaves (which in some species have coarsely toothed margins) are about 2 to 5 cm (3/4 to 2 in) long and are either arranged in clusters or alternately from each other. The fragrant yellow 5-petal flowers bloom in elongated groups of 3 to 8 during April and May. The fleshy, round fruits ripen in July and August, turning from a yellowish-green to a black, red or blue color. These fruits tend to have a diameter of 7 to 9 mm (5/16 to 3/8 in), though their sizes vary (Kindscher 1987: 196).

Geographic Distribution

Currants and gooseberries grow on hillsides, limestone cliffs, borders of woods, near swamps, beside ravines and streams, and in sandy areas throughout much of North America (196)(Angier [2008] 1974: 62) normally in areas from 5,000 to 9,000 feet of elevation (Niethammer 1974: 61). Particular currants and gooseberries can be found in particular regions: squaw currants grow in high mountainous regions, buffalo currants grow in the plains and piedmont, and black currants grow in the damp woods of the foothills (Scully 1970: 35).

Food Use

Seventy-five some edible varieties of currants were eaten by many Native North Americans (Angier [2008] 1974: 62; Weiner 1980: 200). The ripe berries, high in vitamin C, can be eaten raw, cooked, dried, preserved as jellies and jams, backed in pies and tarts, made into vine, or made into juice (Angier [2008] 1974: 63; Kindscher 1987: 196). Some tribes, like the Hidatsa, considered currants a desirable wild fruit (197), but some documents indicate that other Native American groups, like the Hopi, once cautioned against consuming too much of the fruit, because too much of the fruit can make someone feel sick (Niethammer 1974: 61). Native Americans used hot coals to singe them off the bristly skins of some gooseberry species (Weiner 1980: 200). The Gitksan of British Columbia, besides eating the raw fruits, used them to make thin dry cakes eaten with oil of eulachon, salmon, groundhog, or bear during the winter (Smith et al. 1997: 102-103). Tribes from Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, California, Oregon, and elsewhere in British Columbia also made dried currant cakes (Ford 1986: 29). Currants and gooseberries were used to make flavorful pemmican, currant soup, cooked sweet young corn, and to season stews (Scully 1970: 35 & 47). For some tribes, like the Apache, the berries were not an integral part of the diet, though they were consumed by children (Jordan 2008: 79). Some early Spanish Americans used gooseberries, or macita, to make jelly and wine (Castetter 1935: 49), which continues to be a popular use of the fruit (Kindscher 1987: 197). During the early spring the young leaves can be cooked with meat, dried for tea (196), boiled or eaten raw with uncooked deer or mutton fat as one Zuni recipe goes (Castetter 1935: 49). Even the honey-rich flowers can be eaten (Weiner 1980: 200).

Other Uses

The Kiowa used the raw fruits “as a snakebite remedy, because they believed that snakes were afraid of and kept away from it.” Young Hidatsa men mixed the juice of ripe currant berries with clay for personal adornment (Kindscher 1987: 197). Densmore (1974: 292) notes that the wild currant was used as a medicine to treat “diseases of women” and “urinary trouble”, while the red currant was used for both medicine and food. For example, a decoction made from the stem of the skunk red currant can be used to prevent blood clotting after giving birth and the dried and boiled bark of swamp red currant can bring on menstruation (Marles et al. 2000: 194). Other parts of particular currant and gooseberry plants have been known to be used in indigenous medicinal treatments for colds, coughs, diabetes, diarrhea, and prevent miscarriages (195-199).


Angier, Bradford
[2008] 1974 Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. Castetter, Edward Franklin 1935 Uncultivated native plants used as sources of food, Ethnobiological studies in the American Southwest, 1. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico. Densmore, Frances
1974 How Indians use wild plants for food, medicine, and crafts. New York,: Dover. Ford, Richard I.
1986 An Ethnobiology source book : the uses of plants and animals by American Indians, The North American Indian. New York: Garland. Jordan, Julia A.
2008 Plains Apache ethnobotany. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Kindscher, Kelly
1987 Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. Marles, Robin James, Canada. Natural Resources Canada., and Canadian Forest Service. 2000 Aboriginal plant use in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Vancouver: UBC Press. Niethammer, Carolyn J.
1974 American Indian food and lore. New York: Collier Books. Scully, Virginia
1970 A treasury of American Indian herbs; their lore and their use for food, drugs, and medicine. New York,: Crown Publishers. Smith, Harlan Ingersoll, et al. 1997 Ethnobotany of the Gitksan Indians of British Columbia, Mercury series,. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization. Weiner, Michael A.
1980 Earth medicine--earth food : plant remedies, drugs, and natural foods of the North American Indians. 1st rev. and expanded ed. New York. London: Macmillan Pub. Co. ; Collier Macmillan.