purposes, initially across the area from The Netherlands to the
Baltic countries. And it wasn’t long until plant breeders were
working to improve them. Ribes have since been bred for every-
thing from berry size to juice content, cold hardiness to disease
resistance. A century-and-a-half ago, U.S. garden catalogs
offered multiple varieties and a good percentage of the yards
in the U.S. and Canada had at least one currant or gooseberry
bush. The fruit was used to make jams and jellies and wine.
Then came blister rust, followed by efforts to breed a rust-
resistant currant cultivar.
By the mid-1930s, a Canadian fruit breeder, A. W. Hunter, had
succeeded in incorporating a Siberian currant’s natural resis-
tance into European black currants, according to a fascinating
paper on Ribes domestication in the journal Forest Pathology in
2010. But the resistant varieties – Consort, Crusader, Coronet –
didn’t have great fruit and were vulnerable to powdery
mildew, a major disease of Ribes plants. Other efforts in Europe
produced the currant variety Titania, which has its own draw-
backs, including poor quality fruit and the fact that the plants
don’t lend themselves to machine picking. The search continues
even today for a truly great-tasting cultivar that is resistant to
rust and a good half-dozen other major diseases and pests.
Other scientists tackled the rust problem from
the other end, working to breed blister rust-resistant
pines. While much of the work has been done on
sugar pines and the western white pine, University
of Minnesota researchers are working on screening
eastern white pines for resistance and
trying to figure out how the resistance
The promise of rust-resistant Ribes
cultivars was undoubtedly a factor in the
eventual dissolution of the Ribes eradication effort, said Dave Struble, the Maine
state entomologist. But there were others.
After decades of war on Ribes plants, the
domesticated European black currants,
which were a prolific producer of rust
spores, had been largely wiped out. But
it was apparent that eradicating native
Ribes plants – 15 species are native to
the Northeast – was a losing proposition. They could reproduce from long
dormant seeds or portions of root left
in the ground. The region’s pine stock,
moreover, had grown. Mature pines are
much less susceptible to the disease and
so less of it was seen.
In addition, the eradication program
was increasingly seen as too expensive.
By some estimates, $150 million was
spent on eradication.
In 1966, the federal government
removed the national ban on planting
gooseberries and currants, and states in
Clockwise from top left: “Rust” seems an appropriate term for this shot of an infected
eastern white pine. A log detailing the painstaking work (and the record keeping) done
by eradication crews. A keepsake photo of Rex Waite’s days as a currant eradication
crew chief in southern Maine. “The little red arrow by the truck showed the crew which
way I’d gone,” he explains.