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What the heck is that? A gander at gooseberries

“All the other gifts appurtenant to man, as the malice of this age shapes them, are not worth a gooseberry.”

— Sir John Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” Part 2, Act I, Scene 2

Never one to humble himself before his superiors, the fictional knight who is mentioned in five of Shakespeare’s plays boasts in this scene to the Chief Justice that his fine virtues — youth, energy intelligence — sadly count for little in a world of commercialism and greed.

Of course, Falstaff is not young, energetic or particularly intelligent, but he is greedy; he’s hoping to cajole the Chief Justice into lending him “a thousand pounds to furnish me forth” (for wine, women and song, no doubt).

Sir John speaks highly of himself but apparently has little regard for gooseberries, even though the tart grape-sized cane fruits were commonly grown in Shakespeare’s time to cool fevers and for culinary purposes. Gooseberries and their closely related Ribes kin, currants, were used for jams, meat dishes and desserts.

Some say gooseberries derived their common name from a sauce made from the fruit that was poured over roasted goose (and mackerel). Gooseberries were also used in a fruit and cream dessert, called gooseberry fool, which is still popular in England. Another name for gooseberry in the U.K. is faeberry, so called for a folktale about fairies hiding in gooseberry bushes.

Since the Elizabethan period, numerous gooseberry cultivars have been produced specifically for American gardens (Ribes hirtellum and hybrids). The long-living, thorny deciduous shrubs bear interesting fruit in the summer with translucent skin that turns light green, pink or red when ripe. Gooseberry bushes are self-fertile, and one healthy bush will produce up to four quarts of fruit each year.

In Southern Oregon, the OSU Extension recommends the following gooseberry cultivars: Captivator, Oregon Champion, Pixwell and Poorman. All of these cultivars have been bred to resist diseases, including white pine blister rust. Gooseberries and currants were found to be a host for this fungal disease with devastating consequences to white pine trees.

However, the new gooseberry cultivars are safe for pine trees, and have the added benefit of hosting the larvae of several species of butterflies. Our region has a few native species of gooseberries, including Lobb’s or gummy gooseberry (Ribes lobbii). This spiny, sticky plant bears fuchsia-like flowers and reddish-brown fruit.

Spring is the time to plant bare-root gooseberries. They like moist, well-draining soils (pH around 6.0) with lots of organic matter. Gooseberries will produce more fruit if they receive full sun, but they’ll appreciate some afternoon shade in our summer heat.

Before planting, soak the roots of bare-root plants in water for 3-4 hours. Then set in holes about twice as deep and wide as the roots, and cover the first 2-3 buds from the bottom with soil. This will encourage a larger root system and the development of renewal canes, which increases the shrub’s productivity and lifespan. Plants should be spaced 3-4 feet apart.

Once planted, prune the canes back so there are 5-6 buds above ground. Mulch around the plant, avoiding the stem, and water thoroughly. During the first three years, allow 4-5 canes to develop each year by removing only weak or damaged wood.

During year four, begin pruning out old wood in March. Fruit is produced on one, two and three-year-old wood, so try to keep 3 to 4 canes of each age. Gooseberry bushes can sprawl without consistent pruning.

Sir John Falstaff would have been surprised to learn that in the 1700s, gooseberry clubs were forming in England that were devoted to growing and showing new gooseberry cultivars. The clubs held annual competitions and offered prizes for the biggest, smoothest and tastiest gooseberries. The plethora of gooseberry cultivars available today are due largely to the efforts of these gooseberry societies.

Gooseberry competitions continue in England today, with the heaviest gooseberry on record weighing in at almost 65 grams and larger than an egg — even Falstaff would be impressed by that!

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about growing cane fruits, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.