Black Currant Tasting & Varietal Comparisons

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Upon first taste black currants fascinated my palate and they’ve succeeded in doing so ever since. Over the years I’ve increased my collection to a dozen or so varieties. With white pine blister rust being a prevalent issue in Michigan my selection criteria has been narrowed down to only varieties which exhibit partial or full resistance to WPBR. I started with Consort and since then the collection has grown to include Crusader, Titania, Blackdown, Minaj Smirou, Ben Sarek, Belaruskaja, and various others that aren’t bearing yet like Kirovchanka, Vertti, Otelo, and a few that aren’t coming to mind.

There is a wide variation amongst varieties in both bush habit and fruit quality/flavor. That to me is very exciting as I love subtle nuances in flavor and its a fun way to broaden the palate. For the 2014 season I’ve taken tasting notes for the seven cultivars previously mentioned in an attempt to compare and assess the different traits of each and acquire first hand varietal information–

Crusader

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Large shiny jet black berries of Crusader.

Crusader was an early introduction from the Central Experiment Farm in Ottawa, Canada. It was released in the 1940’s as a rust resistant variety for North America. For me it has been a very consistent producer of medium sized fruit. They tend to be thicker skinned and very sharp(high acidity)…not one of my favorite for eating out of hand but still enjoyable, especially when dead ripe. Crusader holds onto its fruit for a long time and the thick skin slows down their perishabilty which is a nice quality. The bush itself, like all of the others developed by A.W.S. Hunter, is upright and open compared to some of the more dense varieties, particularly those from the Scottish Research Institute.

 

Consort

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Consort was released from the Central Experiment Farm to replace Crusader as a commercial variety in the 1950’s. Why,  I’m not sure…as I tend to prefer Crusader. Consort fruit are small and relatively poor quality in my opinion. They’re sharp and have that characteristic ‘musky flavor’ but lack depth and seem inferior to Crusader. Consort does produce long strigs that tend to ripen pretty evenly. Consort is entirely WPBR resistant. Coronet is another one from the Canadian breeding program that I’ve yet to try.

 

 

Titania

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Titania is a Swedish variety that was developed in the 1980’s using Consort as one of the parents. This is the first season I’ve had a substantial crop from Titania and so far it seems similar to Crusader and Consort both in fruit quality and bush form. It was very productive this year and is a vigorous grower; thus far it seems rather quick to mature compared to other cultivars that have been in the ground 1,2, and 3 years longer. Titania is reliably resistant to WPBR.

Minaj Smirou

Stem density on Minaj...always have to remind myself to prune more than less because of its vigorous nature.
Stem density on Minaj Smirou…always have to remind myself to prune more than less because of its vigorous nature.

I haven’t been able to find much information about this variety besides that it was developed in Bulgaria and is a more recent introduction. This has been hands down the most productive variety for me. Also the most vigorous grower that requires aggressive pruning. The branches tend to lodge when holding big crops and are more laterally dominant than varieties like Consort and Titania (conducive for layering). The berries ripen over a long period starting early in the season (need to take more notes on ripening times*); generally its the first to ripen here. This is a great variety for somebody new to black currants or for the more tamed palate as it is very mild. Thick skin can be a turn off for some folks, Minaj scores well in this department with the thinnest skin of all. It lacks the tart punch that almost all black currants have which makes it nice for eating out of hand. However, if you’re after that traditional black currant flavor than Minaj is probably not for you. I enjoy the berries because they ripen first and I always realize its blandness when compared to some of the later ripening cultivars. Minaj is reliably resistant to WPBR.

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I know— 5th grader hand writing, maybe worse.

Blackdown

Blackdown is an English variety that is reportedly not 100% rust resistant, however its never showed any signs in my trials. The bush is more compact than most with very close leaf nodes making the canopy dense. So far it has been a little less productive than the other varieties but produces the highest quality fruit in my opinion. The flavor of blackdown is outstanding– they have the same acidity thats common with varieties like Crusader except they’ve consistently had a higher sugar content which really supports the sharpness and makes for an overall more pleasant mouth experience. The berries are medium sized with moderatly thick skin. Higher sugar content would make Blackdown more acceptable for the average American palate I think. I am going to plant a lot more of this variety because I like it so much.

Ben Sarek

Ben Sarek is very compact and good for small spaces.
Ben Sarek is very compact and good for small spaces.
Large berries and signs of the unusual rot that hits even unripe berries sometimes. Any insights?
Large berries and signs of the unusual rot that hits even unripe berries sometimes. Any insights?

All varieties with Ben in their name come from the Scottish Research Institute. Ben Sarek is a more compact plant making it nice for the home garden. It bears resemblance to Blackdown in bush form and holds its berries in tight clusters. For me it has been only moderately productive. The berries are larger than all of the other cultivars and tend to have a unique flavor that I’ve yet to figure out. Less complex and less tart and almost a mild dirty flavor…as if they’re slightly rotten. It also gets this weird rot where the berries become very soft with an unagreeable flavor, unlike any other cultivar. Aside from the compact nature and large fruit size Ben Sarek doesn’t have much going for it. It is partially resistant to WPBR but has never shown signs in my trials.

 

Belaruskaja

Young Belaruskaja with dwarf comfrey.
Young Belaruskaja with dwarf comfrey.

This is a variety I added to my collection per request from Lee Reich and I’m happy I did. I planted it in the spring of 2013 and cut the bush back to a few buds and it put on considerable growth last season and set a small crop for this first time this year. The berries are somewhere in between Blackdown and Titania in flavor with a nice sweetness as described with Blackdown. So far I’ve only sampled a few dozen of these and look forward to further evaluation. I see good prospects for Belaruskaja as a premier fresh eating variety.

Summary

It has been a joy to compare these different varieties and if it weren’t for the diversity than the contrast would be minimum and there wouldn’t be much to judge against. I hope to pay closer attention in future years to ripening times and pest resistance, primarily regarding currant borer and aphids. Also, further experimentation in the kitchen will prove which varieties are best for cooking, juicing, etc. All in all black currant has been one of the most successful, less-maintenance fruits in my gardening experiments.

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Fall IS Here, But Apples Are Not…

Today marks the autumnal equinox and now its official— fall is here! In retrospect the summer seemed to have went by in fast motion as it started abruptly with an early spring and now its concluding just as swiftly. These periods of drastic change are incredibly powerful and sometimes the shifting energy can be difficult to deal with but we try our best. I have been traveling for the past few weeks, first on a trip to VT to stay at Whole Systems Design research farm and then touring throughout northwest MI doing some consulting, seminars, and catching up with friends and colleagues. Summer seems to have ended during the weeks on the road and now that I’m back its satisfying to spend time walking through the gardens observing, harvesting, and contemplating. There is still a lot to be had for the 2012 gardening season but cold nights dipping into the low 40’s pose major threats to those vine-ripening tomatoes and unripe figs(which sadly won’t ripen). Its the time of year to move inward, wether that means collecting your ideas and dreams, or storing away the season’s bounty. In the next couple weeks I will be making jams & jellies, fermenting cabbage, carrots, and other root vegetables, as well as putting up other storable food items for the cold months ahead. The squirrels are busy burying nuts, luckily for them(and us!) its a bumper crop year for oaks. The best part is that sometimes they forget these burial sites and VOILA a cluster of oak trees appear a few seasons later.  Ever since I’ve been growing fruit and gardening in general, this season stands out as the most unusual in terms of weather conditions, ripening dates, and so on. In the old apple orchard on my families land not an apple can be found. Not to say that all of the apples in SE MI were a bust, but these particular trees set very few if any. On a recent visit to a friend’s orchard outside of Ann Arbor, I discovered that his plum, apricot, peach, pear, and apple trees didn’t set a single fruit. On the contrary, the other day while driving through the hilly landscape of the grand Traverse bay in northern MI, the roadside orchard trees were laden with ripe apples. Perhaps this protected fruit growing region has somewhat of a buffer. Either way, its been an odd and eye-opening year. I keep thinking back to a principle we share in our Roots To Fruits talks…it goes: Value Diversity; we then expand and talk about the different facets of diversity(functional,biological,genetic,etc.) and the many values of having a diverse landscape, but now I’m referring to crop diversity in a garden-orchard. Its one of those years you wish you would’ve over-planted. Another interesting idea comes to mind that I’d like to share with you. While having a conversation with my buddy Ben Falk, he mentioned that there is a lot of talk about how tree-based agriculture is highly resilient in the face of an unpredictable climate and other instabilities but really when we depend on fruit, mast, or nut-producing trees we’re actually relying on the most delicate and vulnerable manifestation of nature— a flower. He makes a good point, and it can be clearly seen this year with crop loss due to drought, late frosts, and other climatic conditions. This reinforces the necessity for planting late-flowering trees like American persimmon and chestnut. I digress.

Several exciting ideas are brewing for new blog posts and articles so keep an eye out over the next couple weeks and expect much more as we move into the winter months. I will have some amazing guests coming on the podcast as well. For now I’ve decided to share some recent photos with quick captions that will hopefully give you an idea of what I’ve been up to as of late. May you have a happy and healthy seasonal transition!

Ben showing the few quinces on his tree this year…
Korean nut pine doing well at Whole Systems Design research farm…
Comfrey growing beneath a plum tree at Whole Systems Design research farm in north central VT…
Cornus mas bush loaded with pawpaw trees in background. At Marc Boone’s orchard in Ann Arbor, MI.
Cornelian cherries were one of the few crops that fared through the tough season…one worth planting!
Marc showing the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy limb union on a pawpaw tree…although this branch is growing at a good crotch angle, it is the unhealthy one with a higher risk of splitting…
Well-joined limb on pawpaw tree with good crotch angle…
One of the few ‘Aromatnaya’ quinces. This one had plum curculio damage and Marc claims his grandma told him this is ‘how quinces are’ and why you cook ’em in pies!
Marc setting up his ‘pawpaw harvesting sleds’ for easy access through the orchard alleys…
Good pawpaw cluster, although the orchard overall produced nearly 10% of what it did last season. 9/9/12
‘Leikora’ is a seaberry cultivar that produces beautiful large clusters with good pickability… 9/9/12 Ann Arbor, MI
Mike Levine’s front yard food forest near downtown Ann Arbor, MI. Check out his website at http://www.natureandnurture.org
Extremely vigorous American persimmon that got topworked earlier this spring…mature roots make all the difference for graft vigor when it comes to American persimmons. This tree will be fruiting in no time…
Another graft detail…appears to be a rind graft.
Mike picking his favorite pawpaw— Overleese…
Mike has one of the most successful hardy kiwi productions systems I’ve seen yet…
Nice flush of oyster mushrooms on one of our very successful mushroom hunts in NW Michigan…
High density apple planting at Tandem Ciders
Tasting room at Tandem…I love this place!
Came home to find the golden raspberry primocane crop in full swing…’Fall Gold’ and ‘Kiwi Gold’ 9/22/12
Lovely basket of produce from the garden… 9/22/12

Purple-Flowering Raspberry: An Ornamental Edible

Last week I did a post highlighting some of the unusual members of the Rubus genus, or more commonly known as brambles. I want to share one more of those rarities— Rubus odoratus AKA purple-flowering raspberry. Originally I started with one lowly plant from the edible forest garden at MSU’s Student Organic Farm. Now an ever expanding clump of purple flowering raspberry lives beneath the canopy of one of my peach trees. Its a lovely plant with attractive, almost star-shaped leaves and pretty pink flowers. Only problem is that the plants are shy to bear. The plants, and the fruits themselves, bear much resemblance to thimbleberry(R.parviflorus). Today I was able to munch on a few ripe berries and they had a pleasant nutty flavor reminiscent of a dried raspberry. Although unproductive, purple-flowering raspberry is a lovely ornamental none-the-less.

Large five-pointed leaves purple-flowering raspberry leaves…
Dainty flower cluster…

The seedy fruits have an interesting pattern on their underside and ripen to a dark pink color…
This is how the majority of fruit clusters look…with little to no properly developed aggregates.

Comfrey For The Garden & Orchard

Comfrey is a plant with a multitude of uses not only in the home apothecary but also in the garden. There are several species in the genus Symphytum, all of which merit special attention, but generally S. officinale, or common comfrey, and a hybrid species S.x uplandicum are most often used. The ladder of which is particularly suitable for the home garden because it is sterile and doesn’t spread by seed. The most available variety is called ‘Bocking 14’. These are upright comfreys which can grow 5′ tall. There are also rhizomatous species which only grow 6″-1′ high and spread to form a dense groundcover.

Comfrey is prized amongst herbalists for its incredible healing powers. Comfrey leaves and roots

Comfrey leaves and roots chopped for making an herbal salve.

contain a high concentration of allatoin– a substance that speeds cell renewal. It got the colloquial name ‘knitbone’ for its use in treating wounds and reducing inflammation from broken bones and sprains.  It’s not a surprise that comfrey fulfills a similar ecological niche working to heal wounded and degraded soils. Comfrey is referred to as a mineral accumulator or dynamic accumulator for its ability to mine nutrients with its deep roots (which also loosen compacted soils). Those nutrients are then deposited in the aerial parts of the plant; being especially high in potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and nitrogen. When the aerial parts die back in the fall those nutrients assimilate into the surrounding soil. Gardeners can facilitate this process by intentionally cutting the plant down at strategic times for use as mulch around fruit trees, berry bushes, or in the veg garden. In the permaculture world we

Close up showing comfrey mulch around trunk of tree.
Comfrey mulch chopped around the base of a young peach tree.

refer to this process as ‘chop-n-drop’. Plant comfrey at the base of your fruit trees and simply chop-n-drop the material right in place; breaking the leaves and stalks into smaller pieces will accelerate decomposition but is not necessary. This is an effective way to build topsoil rapidly and reduce off-site inputs. From my experience I’ve been able to get anywhere from 3-5 cuttings throughout the season. One fella recently told me he cuts his back 7-8 times! I like to wait for the first flush of flowers in early summer because they provide excellent bee fodder.

Preparing comfrey tea brew.
Finished comfrey tea will be slimy on top. Discard slimy material and use as mulch or add to compost.

Another strategy for utilizing comfrey’s amazing mineral accumulating capacity is to brew a fermented comfrey tea. This is a very easy procedure which entails chopping up a few handfuls of comfrey leaves and placing them in a 5 gallon bucket with water. Cover with a lid and let the mixture ferment outdoors for 1-2 weeks. Alternatively, start the batch by pouring boiling water over the plant material and letting it steep for a few hours then adding room temp. water to fill the rest of the bucket. The hot water method seems to extract more of the nutrients. You will know its ready when it has a strong stank…a good stank! Apply with a backpack sprayer diluted or undiluted. This fermented tea can be used a foliar feed or applied directly to the soil.

‘Dwarf Yellow’ comfrey

I grow comfrey around my compost bins and periodically add it to new piles or existing piles to jump-start the decomposition process. I also like to think that the comfrey roots capture any leached nutrients from the compost pile. One reason some people bash on comfrey is because its nearly impossible to get rid of as the tiniest piece of root will put on adventitious buds and sprout into a new plant. Easy to propagate? Ooooh yes! Aside from comfrey’s amazing medicinal qualities and numerous garden uses, it is also a very beautiful plant that can tolerate almost any soil type and will grow well in partial shade. Some ornamental varieties include ‘Goldsmith’, ‘Hidcote Blue’, and ‘Dwarf White’. I would love to hear how you’re utilizing comfrey in your garden! Cheers.

Short video clip: Comfrey Chop-N-Drop Timing

Since adolescent pawpaw trees require dappled shade, comfrey is a great multipurpose companion.
Comfrey and mint at base of young persimmon tree.
‘Bocking 14’ comfrey flowers
Comfrey showing itself in early spring by a compost bin.