Red-flowering currant, a member of the gooseberry family, grows in the form of a medium to tall shrub from one to three metres tall. Crooked, brownish stems stand erect or lean against other shrubs in open to dense thickets. Greyish-green leaves cluster on short spur branches arranged along the twiggy stems. Each leaf is shaped like a small, rounded maple leaf with three to five lobes and its underside is covered in fine matted hair. The main attraction of the plant for humans and hummingbirds alike is its spectacular flowers. From March to May, depending on the location, masses of pale to bright-pink blooms droop in luscious bunches at the tips of the branches. Each (one- to 1.5-centimetre-long) flower consists of a short tube, at the mouth of which five pale to deep-pink sepals and five spoon-shaped petals flare outward. Five yellow stamens crowd the opening of the floral tube, deep inside of which is hidden a two-branched style and a glistening drop of nectar.
By summer, blackish berries covered in grey-blue bloom replace the flowers. The taste of these berries varies according to the individual palate. Some describe it as unpleasant, others as bland and insipid, yet others find it sweet with an agreeable flavour. Despite the berries’ uncertain flavour reputation, First Nations peoples knew red-flowering currant mainly as a food plant. Coast Salish peoples collected and ate the fruit raw, while in the Fraser Canyon, Thompson peoples dried and stored the berries for eating later in the year. Red-flowering currant inhabits the drier portions of the south coast of British Columbia and also lurks in scattered localities in the interior of the province.
Its distribution extends southward along the coast into northern California. This low-elevation species pops up here and there in dry open forest and forest clearings. Logged areas and roadsides are a favourite haunt, and on occasion you may even see it struggling out of a crack in a rock face. Long ago, David Douglas, our region’s pioneering botanist, recognized the beauty and horticultural potential of this shrub. He introduced it to European gardens in 1826 where it soon became a popular subject. In your garden, red-flowering currant can be grown in almost any site from nearly full shade to full sun. For best performance, choose a site with moderately deep soil, preferably enriched in organic matter, but almost any reasonable garden soil will do. The species appears to be a bit sensitive to cold, judging from its distribution in nature.
However, it tolerates temperatures as low as -20°C, which allows it to thrive, with a little protection, in the southern third of the province. The general adaptability of red-flowering currant makes it suitable for several garden uses. It grows superbly in a shrub border, combined with other flowering shrubs, such as forsythia or Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia). Many people plant this wild currant as a specimen shrub in the middle of the lawn for a surprise burst of early-spring colour. You can also plant it in rows to form a striking hedge that can even tolerate some shaping. Or simply scatter seeds under power lines or at the back of your property for spring colour and to provide shelter and food for birds. Several colour varieties of this currant are widely available at garden centres and nurseries. The choices range from intense pinks through softer shades to the pure-white ‘White Icicle.’ Choose a colour to match your garden scheme or try several forms for a range of shades. Plants can be raised from seed, or rooted from cuttings collected in mid to late summer. By far the most reliable and the easiest way to propagate the red-flowering currant is by layering. Simply bend the straggly stems to the ground, cover with a little soil and weigh down with a rock. Within a year the stems will have rooted and can be cut away from the parent and planted out.
So, if you are looking for attractive harbingers of spring, plant a red-flowering currant. Its blossoms will brighten the garden and invite the joyous twitter of hummingbirds to gladden your heart. An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.