Monthly Archives: February 2016

Plant Profile: Red-Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)

I have several white-flowered bushes of Ribes sanguineum in my garden, and when they burst into bloom they cause a number of trite similes to come to mind. Their abundance is like a frothy cascade, a bridal veil, a waterfall…you get the idea.

white spray of currant flowers

White cultivar of red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Photo by Sarah Gage.

My shrubs came from a start supplied to me by Dr. Eugene Kozloff, well-known as a zoologist and author—and less well-known as a chronic plant propagator and generous plant dispenser.

They bloom earlier in my garden than the red cultivars, and the hummingbirds seem to like them just as much. I’m always tempted cut massive bouquets and bring them indoors, but their aroma is best appreciated outside.

This plant profile was originally published, in slightly different form, as part of a native plant spotlight series, now available on the Washington Native Plant Society website.

Why Choose It?

At the bleak tail-end of winter, red-flowering currant’s flurry of blossoms act like horticultural Prozac. Gracefully drooping clusters of crimson flowers adorn shrubs that have yet to leaf out. The blooms reassure us that yes, spring is nearly here.

The rest of the year the shrub is a good garden citizen, greening up nicely with maple-like leaves, making berries for the birds, and turning gently yellow in the fall—while quietly awaiting its return to top billing.

In the Garden

Happy in sun or shade, this freely branching shrub brightens up a mixed border or woodland in western Washington. Early migrating hummingbirds seek out its flower nectar. Later on, robins, towhees, and sparrows enjoy the whitish berries, although humans find them insipid.

The Facts

pink sprays of flowers on robust green shrub.

Pink cultivar of red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Photo by Sarah Gage.

Red-flowering currant grows upright, 3 to 9 feet tall. If you water it for the first two summers after planting, it will do fine through our dry summers. Several cultivars are available, including ones with pure white flowers.

Red-flowering currant grows in open woods, on cliffs, and along roadsides in western Washington. I’ve seen it growing wild along the railroad tracks at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle, on the cliffs of Deception Pass on Whidbey Island, and as flashes of pink along Interstate 5. It has been planted at many native plant demonstration gardens and restoration sites.

And, hey, what was it worth in the 19th century?

When David Douglas, the mercurial and dauntless Northwest plant explorer, sent seeds of red-flowering currant to London, the plant became all the rage. The Royal Horticultural Society recouped its investment in Douglas’s expedition from this plant introduction alone.