ribes-divaricatumCommon name: coastal black gooseberry, wild gooseberry, spreading gooseberry

Scientific name: Ribes divaricatum

Plant family: Grossulariaceae

Description: Coastal black gooseberry is a deciduous shrub that grows from 3 to 7 feet tall with dark green, glossy leaves. They are 2-5 centimeters across with deeply indented lobes that are roughly maple leaf shaped. Where the leaf attaches to the stem, there are one to three spines. The flowers are green or purple with white to reddish petals, with four or fewer flowers in an inflorescence. The fruits are round, dark purple or black and smooth, approximately 1 centimeter long.[1]

Habitat and range: The shrub grows at low elevations in west-side forests, coastal, meadows,[2] wet areas, moist open woods, canyons, and coastal bluffs from British Columbia to California.[3] It likes full sun to partial shade or dappled sunlight.[3]

Historical and contemporary uses: The primary use of Ribes divaricatum is as a food. Various Native American groups eat the fruit of this species in its fresh, dried, cooked, or preserved state. The majority of these groups simply eat the berries ripe, raw, and fresh, but others like the Cowlitz (Central Washington) eat them while they are still green. Another variation is the Hesquiat (Vancouver Island and surrounding continental coast) eating the ripe berries with oil, rather than plain. Although less common, some groups cooked the berries, the Bella Coola (British Columbia) reduced the berries into a sauce eaten with other foods. Usually when groups cooked the berries, they were also storing them as a winter food. The Cowlitz and Gosiute both dried berries, but again the Cowlitz used green berries, not ripe berries. The Coast Salish (Northern Vancouver Island and northern coast of continent) did not eat the berry raw but only cooked it into a dense cake that could be saved for the winter months. Tvxhe Thompson (British Columbia) crushed the berries into a drink and also cooked them in a sort of pie.[4] Often these groups view Ribes divaricatum similarly to how modern society views a dessert.[5] In fact, like the Thompson group, modern Americans gather the wild gooseberry and bake it into pies and other dishes. Though European varieties of gooseberry are more common or traditionally used berries for this purpose,Ribes divaicatum is cultivated by some Northwest nurseries for their sweet and juicy fruits.[6]

Various Native American groups also used Ribes divaricatum as cordage, netting, pipstems, and sharp tools. The Saanich and Cowichan boiled the root with cedar and wild rose, before pounding it and weaving it into rope, which they used to make reef nets for fishing. The Bella Coola hallowed out the stalks of the plant and used them as pipe stems for smoking. The Coast Salish used the thorns, which grow where the leaf meets the stem, as sharp tools for boils, removing splinters, and for tattooing.[7]

[1] Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. Revised Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine Publishing, 2004), 85.

[2] Mark Turner. “Ribes divaricatum,” Turner Photographics, accessed October 1, 2011.http://www.pnwflowers.com/flower/ribes-divaricatum

[3] Seven Oaks Native Nursery. “Ribes divaricatum coastal black gooseberry,” accessed October 2, 2011.http://www.sevenoaksnativenursery.com/native-plants/shrubs/ribes-divaricatum/

[4] Daniel E. Moerman. Native American Ethnobotany (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998):477.

[5] David H. French. “Ethnobotany of the Pacific Northwest Indians,” Economic Botany 19, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1965): pp. 379-80.

[6] Elizabeth S. O’Neill. “Wild Gooseberries and Currants,” Mother Earth News, September/ October 1982. Accessed October 2, 2011, http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/1982-09-01/Wild-Gooseberries-and-Currants.aspx

[7] Moerman, 477.