Food & Entertaining - In Season
Gaga for gooseberries
Learn how to grow delicious gooseberries in your garden with help from senior horticulture editor, Stephen Westcott-Gratton.
In my family, gooseberries provided everyone with a job: I grew and harvested them, my father topped and tailed them, and my mother turned them into delicious pies, jams and of course, classic gooseberry fool.
Gaga for gooseberries
Often thought of as quintessentially English, gooseberries aren’t mentioned in any British documents until the late 13th century, when King Edward I’s fruiterer had bushes imported from France. Their popularity steadily increased, reaching its zenith with the Victorians, who delighted in gooseberry shows and competitions: so much so that Charles Darwin (1809-82) became interested in how a fruit—formerly no larger than a pea—could swell to the size of a small apple in such a relatively short timeframe.
A member of the genus Ribes and closely related to currants, two types of gooseberries predominate in today’s gardens: the European species (R. uva-crispa), which is native to the Caucasus Mountains and has lethally sharp spines, is rather prone to mildew, and produces large, delicious fruit; and the North American species (R. hirtellum), which has fewer thorns and good mildew resistance, but smaller, tarter berries. Most of the cultivars we grow today are a complex mix of these two species—an attempt by breeders to secure the best of both worlds.
Canadian hybridisers have been trying to get the balance right for nigh on 150 years as this excerpt from The Canadian Fruit, Flower and Kitchen Gardener (1872) illustrates: “There are some American varieties which have been found to be usually exempt from mildew. They are not as large and showy as the English sorts, but we must content ourselves with these until better are produced.”
Gooseberries are one of the easiest of all fruits to cultivate successfully and individual bushes are usually productive for at least 15 years. They can be grown in most kinds of soil; left unpruned they’ll reach a mature height and width of 1.5 metres, and are solidly hardy to Zone 3. Although the shrubs themselves won’t win any beauty pageants, they can be strategically placed among large, flowering perennials or mixed in with other small, woody plants and trees so that they don’t become a focal point.