Gooseberries and black currants are mainstays in European gardens, but they have never taken hold in North America. Perhaps the gooseberries' tart flavor and thorns or the currants' disease problems have discouraged gardeners here. However, a relative newcomer crosses the best of both species and results in an easy-to-grow bush fruit that tastes great eaten fresh or in jams and pies.
'Josta' berry (Ribes nidigrolaria) takes the looks of a gooseberry, removes the thorns, and makes it sweeter. It combines the vigorous growth and rich flavor of a black currant with disease resistance (including to white pine blister rust and mildew).
The tangy-sweet flavor of a jostaberry (pronounced yust-a-berry) is a mix of grape, blueberry, and kiwi-fruit. In recipes, substitute the 1/2- to 1-inch berries for cranberries. Though josta-berries are great in jams, jellies, and pies, mine never make it to the kitchen because I enjoy eating them right off the bush.
My three bushes, now a central part of the garden for their exquisite beauty, ease of care, and tantalizing fruit, continue to reward me with consistent harvests for little work.
This German-bred berry was introduced in 1977, but recent breeding at USDA in Oregon has produced new varieties with better flavor and color. 'Orus 8' is said to be the best tasting, but it does produce a few thorns. 'Red Josta' has red highlights on a near-black berry; it is very productive and a little sweeter than a black currant. Two other recently introduced German varieties will be available to home gardeners in the year 2000.
'Jogranda' ('Jostaki' or 'Jostagranda') has violet-black berries that are slightly larger than the original 'Josta' berry and grow on spreading, slightly drooping branches that need support. 'Jostine', with spreading bushes, produces large to medium-sized berries that ripen slightly after 'Jogranda'. Although most varieties are self-fertile, 'Jogranda' and 'Jostine' are best planted as a pair for cross-pollination.
The fast-growing, long-lived bush can easily grow 6 feet tall. It can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 8 and has survived temperatures down to -40° F. It has good summer heat tolerance and needs only 1,000 hours of winter chilling, making it a good bet in milder areas such as northern Georgia, Alabama, and Texas.
Plants are sold both bare-root and in pots. Set out bare-root plants in early spring, potted plants anytime. Space them about 6 feet apart in well-drained, slightly acid soil. Grow in full to part sun; in hotter regions, afternoon shade is best. In late winter, fertilize with compost or aged manure, then add an organic mulch, such as straw, in early summer to help keep roots cool and soil moist.
Maintenance is simple. Prune in late winter, cutting out broken or drooping branches. To encourage the growth of fewer, larger berries and new replacement shoots, cut the oldest one or two canes to the ground. Jostaberries are easily propagated by hardwood stem cuttings.
Because bushes flower in early spring, they may need protection from late-spring frosts in cold climates. They bear fruit by the second year on year-old wood, and fruiting spurs of older wood often produce up to 12 pounds of fruit per bush. Berries start off green, closely resembling a small gooseberry, and hang firmly in clusters of three to five. In early summer, they reach their final size and develop a translucent deep purple, almost black skin. The vitamin C-packed fruits are ready to pick by late June in my zone 8 climate.
Kris Wetherbee maintains a garden and orchard in Oakland, Oregon.
Article published on June 23, 2008.