The splashes of shocking magenta scattered brazenly beside Highway 99 belong to red-flowering currant. While you might not choose to make such a public display of yourself, these shrubs are rewarded for their boldness by driving hummingbirds nuts.
The genus Ribes (“rye-bees”) includes the currants and gooseberries used in commercially-available jams and jellies. Our wild ones are also edible, but don’t expect to love the taste – “edible” in this case just means not poisonous.
Black gooseberry is another Ribes common in Whistler and can easily be distinguished from red-flowering currant. If it gooses you with sharp prickles, it’s gooseberry; if it doesn’t, it’s currant.
Red-flowering currant is normally found at forest edges and openings (like Lost Lake trails or on the southwest corner of Lorimer Road at Highway 99). Black gooseberry is more likely to be found in wetter locales beside streams or in moist woods.
Red-flowering currant has been used in gardens for almost 200 years, ever since it was taken back to England by David Douglas. It’s hard to argue with the beauty of these shrubs, but planting them may help spread an imported pathogen that attacks and kills five-needled pines (in our area we have two: western white pine and whitebark pine).
White wine blister rust, a fungus accidentally introduced here from France in the early 1900’s, requires Ribes shrubs to complete part of its lifecycle. Western white pines used to be much more common in our forests but, as you can see throughout Whistler’s subdivisions, they are often killed by blister rust by the time they reach a height of about 20 metres.
Even if you don’t have one of these beautiful shrubs in your garden, you can still enjoy them in the wild. Just don’t go out of your way to taste the berries.
Written by: Bob Brett