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Plant Profile – Ribes sanguineum

April 20, 2012
Ribes Mary's Peak

Ribes sanguineum ‘Mary’s Peak’ combined with burgundy Japanese Maple & Hardy Geranium

One of my favorite Pacific Northwest native plants has to be Ribes sanguineum. In mid-April they’re in full glory, so now’s the time to sing their praises!

This medium size shrub reaches about ten feet tall at maturity. And although it doesn’t get large, it also doesn’t take it long to grow to size in the garden. (Hint: that means you can buy a small one and only have a couple of years to wait until it gets big.)

Ribes flowers open in early spring and last for several weeks. Should a late spring snow storm hit, the flowers hold up well and are actually quite lovely when dripping with water or snow. Their clusters of tiny, fuchsia-shaped flowers range in color from white to pale pink to deep fuchsia to newer varieties sporting peachy-orange-yellow inflorescences. And those flowers are a hummingbird magnet. Later in summer, the ripe berries are edible, but they aren’t very tasty, so think of them as bird food too.

Ribes sanguineum is drought-resistant once established, but it also enjoys a wetter location. As a forest understory shrub, they prefer a dappled shade location, but they will perform in sunnier spots with a bit of summer irrigation. If their foliage doesn’t succumb to rust or sunburn, they can put on a yellow-orange-rusty fall foliage show before the leaves fall to the ground leaving reddish bark for winter interest.

Maintenance on this shrub is fairly simple. Less is more. Prune out dead, crossing, rubbing or broken branches. Rake up a few fall leaves. Aphids will make a home in mid-summer Ribes foliage, but the damage tends to minimal. Plus, predatory yellow jackets and hornets will troll the plant to harvest those pests for food. And that’s about it. Give it room to grow to size, and it’s fairly maintenance free.

Do note that this plant has one potential big negative. It can host White Pine Blister Rust fungi, helping complete its life cycle. In some areas, this can be a big concern, so check before you plant. I checked in with consulting arborist and occasional guest blogger Katy Bigelow to ask about this problem in the greater Seattle area. Her response: “I love Ribes! I haven’t seen that much of White Pine Blister Rust around here, but I know it’s out there.” She also reminded me that even if you don’t have a problem with this disease cycle, the Ribes only has to be within about 1000′ feet of a white pine for the fungus to pass between them. So even if you have a Pine and no Ribes (or visa versa), if your neighbor has the other, the infections still can happen.

Ribes King Edward VII

Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’

Not sure which Ribes sanguineum is right for your garden? Although the species name ‘sanguineum’ hints that this plant may bloom a sanguine or bloody red, truly the name’s root more likely hints at how cheerful we’re likely to become at the sight of this beauty in spring. In other words, don’t expect this plant to flower a deep red color.

The true native, Ribes sanguineum, puts on pale pink flowers. Want a deeper pink? Try Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ (shown at left). Don’t like pink? Perhaps the clusters of white flowers dripping from Ribes ‘White Icicle’ will brighten up a dark spot in your garden.

Or, join me in coveting the newest Ribes sanguineum to hit the market: Ribes ‘Mary’s Peak’.

Mary’s Peak (shown at top) has blooms that appear pinkish, but offer undertones of yellows and oranges that pair beautifully with other spring native bloomers like yellow-flowering Mahonia, which comes in a range of sizes. Choose a low-growing Mahonia as understory to Ribes or a taller cultivar like ‘Charity’ as an evergreen backdrop. Together these native plants will have your garden full of hungry hummingbirds all spring long.

2 Comments

  1. Chas Cartmel says:

    I love this plant and have always had at least one in my garden. My latest garden is only 3 years old and the shrubs are some 9 foot tall now. My concern though is that this year the leaves started dying off mid-August on one plant and now early September on my other one. This seems early to me based on past experience. No outward signs of disease, and other shrubs in the garden are all ‘normal’. They are both planted in an area in full sun for several hours per day and shaded in the evening by a tree line. The soil is free draining and rich.
    Any suggestion as to what (it anything) could be a problem?
    Thanks

  2. Chas, it’s hard to say without evaluating the plants. Ribes does succumb to a number of root rot diseases. It may take sending a sample into a lab to know for certain. Or, try bringing in a local plant specialist or arborist to help you drill down to the root of the issue. Good luck!

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