For 60 years, gooseberries (Ribes spp.) were America's forbidden fruit. Local and federal governments banned the sale or cultivation of the plant at the turn of the century, until the federal government rescinded the ban in 1966. The unassuming cane fruit earned the ban because of its role in the life cycle of white pine blister rust, a disease that decimated pine, currant and gooseberry populations. Gooseberries have enjoyed a slow but steady return to backyard gardens since their reprieve.
European gooseberries (R. uva-crispa) generally are more flavourful than their American counterparts but, as a class, are more susceptible to mildew, leaf spot and other problematic diseases. Newer cultivars, such as Colossal, are more resistant to diseases than their predecessors. European varieties make up for their less-hardy ancestry with larger, tastier fruit and higher yields. Invicta, although popular, has mild-tasting fruit. Careless produces well, while the yellow, slightly fuzzy fruit of Early Sulfur and the red fruit of Fredonia have quality flavour.
While hardier than European gooseberries, older American gooseberries often were smaller and lacked vibrant flavour. Their health, however, ensured good production over a long period. Growers selected the best of original strains to improve flavour and size. Modern varieties are flavourful and productive, although many still grow smaller than European gooseberries. Poorman is a larger variety with good resilience. Oregon Champion produces fruit that retains colour and taste when processed.
All gooseberry varieties prefer cooler climates and rapidly decline in hot, dry locations. While hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 4 -- even zone 2 for some cultivars -- late frosts often damage the early blooms. Give gooseberries a northern exposure to prevent early blooming, and choose locations with afternoon shade to prevent sunscald in hotter gardens. Most gooseberries are adaptable, but their relatively shallow root system limits their ability to handle drought, so plan on supplemental irrigation.
Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) is from an entirely different family than traditional gooseberries and prefers warmer climates, such as Hawaii or India, rather than cooler altitudes. The plant shares similarities with standard gooseberries; it has wide, pointed leaves and small fruit with longitudinal stripes. The fruit, however, ripens within a papery, inedible husk. Cape gooseberries remain a rare novelty in North America, partly because of their climate restrictions and short productive life.
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