Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)


Although red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a deciduous shrub, it offers year round appeal and habitat, making it a favorite among Pacific Northwest gardeners and wildlife, alike. Not one December goes by that I don’t marvel at its ability to hold onto many of its seasonally colorful leaves until the solstice or beyond, and this year was no exception. Just a short while later — following barely two months of downtime in the new year — strikingly gorgeous flower clusters burst forth prolifically at the same time that fresh leaves emerge. No wonder another of its common names is “winter currant.” Fast forward a few more months, and dark dusty-blue berries, a favorite of many bird species, will adorn this multi-stemmed shrub. 

The sole genus in the Grossulariaceae family, Ribes means ‘currant’ in medieval Latin. One of about 30 currant and gooseberry species in the Northwest, sanguineum refers to the reddish color of the flowers. It’s one of those native plants that had to be chaperoned by Scottish botanist David Douglas to Britain—where it was introduced into cultivation in the 1820s—before it acquired a return transatlantic ticket to popularity with gardeners on its home turf. Not too small or huge, it can usually find a home in places that offer well-drained soil and at least a quarter day of sun.

How it grows
Red-flowering currant naturally occurs at the edge of forests as well as open, rocky slopes and disturbed sites, at low to middle elevations from southwest British Columbia into Washington and Oregon between the Pacific coast and the Cascades, and as far south as central California.

Wildlife value
Pendulous flower clusters, which consist of numerous lightly fragrant, pink to reddish tubular flowers, bloom in profusion along this shrub’s many stems. They offer nectar and pollen at a time when early-emerging pollinators—such as queen bumble bees who must secure a nest and provide for offspring all by themselves—have little else to eat. The early blossoms are also attractive to birds, especially hummingbirds, but also bushtits, making this species a hub of wildlife activity for well over a month. Later on, when berries ripen as summer wanes, birds such as American robins and cedar waxwings (pictured, below) feast; we can also eat them but they are rather tasteless. The small, lobed leaves may provide food for zephyr (Polygonia gracilis zephyrus), Ceanothus silkmoth (Hyalophora euryalus), and other butterfly and moth larvae, which in turn supply food for insectivorous birds. 


Try it at home
Red-flowering currant prefers sun to part sun, and well-drained soil. While tolerant of clay soils, it doesn’t do well on poorly drained sites. Useful for erosion control on slopes, it may eventually form a thicket, which is helpful for wildlife that needs cover.

Mature size varies from around six to ten feet tall; width is typically similar, so do allow it enough space. A fast grower, it may reach four or five feet in just a few years and even produce blossoms as well. If you’re looking to use this shrub in a border, space them five to ten feet apart (on the low end if you want some density and overlap). Although this shrub is quite drought tolerant when established (after two to three years), water it deeply but infrequently in the hot summer months thereafter, especially if your site receives a lot of sun or reflected heat from buildings or fencing, or if drainage is quick. Plant in fall for best results.

The only downside to this lovely shrub is its relatively short life: typically just 20 to 30 years. But replacement is easy since it readily self-sows. Thus, propagation is best achieved via self-sown seed, which are easily dispersed by birds or fall to the ground below. If you want to DIY, collect seeds as soon as fruit is ripe in mid to late summer, remove the pulp and dry them in a shaded place; then sow in autumn (outdoors to allow for stratification). Seed reportedly has a long shelf life if stored in a cool/dry/dark place.


Grab a partner
Since red-flowering currant grows in a fairly wide range of habitats, there are a number of plants with which it interacts in intact ecosystems. For best ecological and gardening results, choose associated native plants that live in communities that currently grow or likely would have grown in your immediate area. In the Pacific Northwest, some of the plants that red-flowering closely associates with include Douglas-fir, bigleaf maple, madrone, bitter cherry, oceanspray, vine maple, elderberry, mock orange, serviceberry, manzanita, salal, sword fern, kinnikinnick, and others. 

Buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

Although many cultivars—with a range of flower color—have been developed, it’s best to choose true species or varieties found in nature. A related species for very moist places is wild gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum), which has edible fruit.

© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

16 thoughts on Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)

  1. Can I plant a flowering current in a container and if so what size ?

    Reply
    1. You could plant one in a huge container, but they grow quite fast so you would need to get in the ground in a few years to prevent it from becoming root bound. Have you seen my post on growing natives in containers?

      Reply
  2. We want to replace a 4 ft wide by 8 ft tall rhododendron in a west facing area next to our house with something that may be more beneficial to wildlife, such as a flowering currant. Though in partial shade most of the day, the top half of this rhody took a real hit in summer due to the high heat in Portland and the top and side leaves burnt badly. Would a ribes sanguineum be better for this spot or can you suggest some other type of native shrub? Can we still plant it in late December or January? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. You can plant now, but without more info s(uch as your location, moisture levels, etc.) and seeing the site, it’s difficult to comment. Assuming the site is only four feet wide, here are no tallish native shrubs that only grow that wide. Tall Oregon grape might work if it’s not next to a pathway, or possibly western mock orange, which usually doesn’t respond badly to pruning (when done soon after flowering). Shorter shrubs might be your answer, such as white spiraea, bald hip rose, and snowberry.

      Reply
  3. Greetings and thank-you for your helpful insight. We planted two Red Flowering Currants from a #5 container per directions. Well daring soil, 6 hrs minimum sunshine per day. Watered once per week or when dry. Both shrubs thrived and grew longer branches. About 6 weeks after planting one of the shrubs began wilting leaves at top of shrub, soil was moist. Eventually all leaves shriveled and died. I suspected voles ate roots since there was evidence of their presence. Roots appeared to not have been eaten. About two weeks later the 2nd shrub suffered the fate. Roots were intact as well. What might be possible explanation(s).

    Reply
    1. So sorry to hear about your plants! Assuming it happened this year and assuming you live in the PNW, I’m wondering if it was just too hot for plants that were recently planted and didn’t have their roots established. If their roots filled 5-gallon containers, it’s possible that watering wasn’t deep enough or the scorching sun was just too much. Here in Portland and of the 3 established currants I have, two in quite a bit of shade did well, while the 3rd, which gets a lot of afternoon sun, burned on its west side (but it will be fine). I also have several currants in pots and I had to keep them in shade during the hottest days. I also wonder if they had been root bound (which can lead to root death, although I’m not sure the plants would die that quickly). If you want to try again, I recommend you plant in the fall just as the rains start; that way they will have all winter to grow a strong root system before energy has to go into producing aboveground growth in the spring. If you live in the Portland area, let me know––I’d be happy to give you a couple of small plants.

      Reply
  4. I would like to plant some red-flowering currants along a fence. How far from the fence should I plant them?

    Reply
    1. In general, it’s best to plant shrubs half their mature width away from structures; in this case it would be 4-5 feet away. Hopefully you can remove the fence once they are big enough.

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  5. I live in an area of heavy winter winds and salt air. Comox waterfront. I am wanting to put in a few currents along the driveway. How do they tolerate wind? I have one in a protected garden and it is very happy.

    Reply
    1. They are deciduous roughly Dec-March, so if it’s only windy in winter they might be ok. However, I’d recommend looking to nearby natural areas to see if they naturally grow in your area. Also check with your local conservation district that’s familiar with your local native plant community (perhaps http://viccs.vcn.bc.ca).

      Reply
  6. I planted a Ribes Sanguineum – Red flowering currant last year. It has grown beautifully – now over 5 ft. tall but did not flower in the spring. It has well drained, slightly acidic soil, upto half day of sunshine. What can I do to make it flower next spring so that my hummingbird can eat from it. I live in North Vancouver, B.C. Thank you for your help. Maureen Crerar

    Reply
    1. Hi Maureen, it’s normal for young shrubs (I’m assuming yours is only a few years old) not to bloom the first few years. I can’t recall when mine first bloomed, but I’d guess that it was about 2 to 3 years after it was planted. It sounds like yours was planted in optimal conditions, so I think yours will bloom next year. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Great information. We recently planted some of these, and are so pleased. As are the deer! Will plant additional plants, so that some of them will grow to their potential. Thanks so much for the info.

    Reply
    1. You’re very welcome, Pat. I wonder if the deer in your area are especially hungry … WSU’s Master Gardener program lists red-flowering currant as ‘deer resistant’.

      Reply
  8. Although this one isn’t suited for my shady balcony “Garden of the Natives”, it’s always a pleasure to see new articles from you. I learn a lot.

    Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Diwali and best wishes for a green spring full of new buds …

    Reply
    1. Thank you David, and best wishes to you, too! I promise I will do a post on container/balcony gardening soon … no space is too small to be beneficial.

      Reply

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