Updated: Mar 26, 2020
This plant is one that you've probably seen if you've spent any time in the higher elevations of Colorado. It can be very abundant, and also happens to be one of the tastier species of Ribes we have!
Ribes montigenum has a variety of common names. If you look online you'll see mountain currant, mountain gooseberry, gooseberry currant (huh?), alpine prickly currant, western prickly gooseberry, and more. This leads us to an interesting discussion; is it a currant or a gooseberry? The Ribes genus consists of both currants and gooseberries, but distinguishing between the two can be a bit confusing. Some people say gooseberries have thorns and currants do not, other sources say that's not the case. I've also read that gooseberries have flowers spread along the stem and currants flower in clumps on the end of the branches. It can be quite a process trying to distinguish between the two, especially when they have common names like 'gooseberry currant'. Luckily, they're all Ribes, and all of the species in Ribes are edible, though some are better than others! I will feature other species from Ribes in future blog posts.
The mountain currant is pretty easy to properly identify and differentiate from other Ribes species. Like other Ribes the leaves of R. montigenum are generally round with several deep, toothed lobes. The branches have short, stout thorns making this one of our "prickly" Ribes species. These thorns can occasionally make harvesting the berries a slightly painful task, but they can be avoided with a bit of care. The bell-shaped flowers which bloom spring to summer are pink to light orange in color, these flowers start to turn into berries mid summer and are usually ripe in August and September. The red berries of the mountain currant are pretty distinct because of the extra-terrestrial looking hairs surrounding their surface. These hairs are harmless unlike some other species of Ribes whose berries have actual thorns on them! Finally, like other Ribes the berries will have a small, dried remnant of the flower attached to the underside. These are also harmless and do not need to be removed.
Ribes montigenum likes to grow in rocky areas and at the bases of conifer trees from about 8,000ft up to alpine. Sometimes they grow as a single plant here and there, but other times they can be found in expansive colonies, the latter being the best for collecting any quantities of these tasty berries! They can also often be found near, or even mixed into other species of Ribes. You may see wax currants, purple gooseberries, and even one with dark purple or almost black berries with similar hairs on them. These other species are all edible and have varying flavors from quite tart to a bit mealy. As mentioned previously, some of these will be featured in future blog posts, I'll save the details for those!
Mountain currant, Ribes montigenum
Found in rocky areas or at the base of conifers from 8,000ft to alpine.
Typical deep, toothy lobed leaves.
Thorny branches with pink to light orange, bell shaped flowers in the spring.
Red berries with 'weird' hairs and a short piece of dried flower remnant on the end.
Can sometimes be found in large colonies.
As always, don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments!