The gooseberry (Ribes grossularia) is a well-known fruit-bush of northern and central Europe, placed in the same genus of the natural order to which it gives name (Ribesiaceae) as the closely allied blackcurrants. It forms a distinct section Grossularia, the members of which differ from the true currants chiefly in their spinous stems, and in their flowers growing on short footstalks, solitary, or two or three together, instead of in racemes.
The first part of the word has been usually treated as an etymological corruption either of this Dutch word or the allied German Krausbeere, or of the earlier forms of the French groseille. The New English Dictionary takes the obvious derivation from goose and berry as probable; the grounds on which plants and fruits have received names associating them with animals are so commonly inexplicable, that the want of appropriateness in the meaning affording sufficient ground for assuming that the word is an etymological corruption. Alternatively the word has been connected to the Middle High German 'krus (curl, crisped), latinized as grossularia.
The wild gooseberry is a small, straggling bush, nearly resembling the cultivated plant, the branches being thickly set with sharp spines, standing out singly or in diverging tufts of two or three from the bases of the short spurs or lateral leaf shoots, on which the bell-shaped flowers are produced, singly or in pairs, from the groups of rounded, deeply-crenated 3 or 5 lobed leaves. The fruit is smaller than in the garden kinds, but is often of good flavor; it is generally hairy, but in one variety smooth, constituting the R. uva-crispa of writers; the colour is usually green, but plants are occasionally met with having deep purple berries. The gooseberry is indigenous in Europe and western Asia, growing naturally in alpine thickets and rocky woods in the lower country, from France eastward, perhaps as far as the Himalaya. In Britain it is often found in copses and hedgerows and about old ruins, but has been so long a plant of cultivation that it is difficult to decide upon its claim to a place in the native flora of the island. Common as it is now on some of the lower slopes of the Alps of Piedmont and Savoy, it is uncertain whether the Romans were acquainted with the gooseberry, though it may possibly be alluded to in a vague passage of Pliny: the hot summers of Italy, in ancient times as at present, would be unfavorable to its cultivation. Abundant in Germany and France, it does not appear to have been much grown there in the middle ages, though the wild fruit was held in some esteem medicinally for the cooling properties of its acid juice in fevers; while the old English name, Fea-berry, still surviving in some provincial dialects, indicates that it was similarly valued in Britain, where it was planted in gardens at a comparatively early period.
William Turner describes the gooseberry in his Herball, written about the middle of the 16th century, and a few years later it is mentioned in one of Thomas Tusser's quaint rhymes as an ordinary object of garden culture. Improved varieties were probably first raised by the skilful gardeners of Holland, whose name for the fruit, Kruisbezie, may have been easily corrupted into the present English vernacular word. Towards the end of the 18th century the gooseberry became a favourite object of cottage-horticulture, especially in Lancashire, where the working cotton-spinners have raised numerous varieties from seed, their efforts having been chiefly directed to increasing the size of the fruit. Of the many hundred sorts enumerated in recent horticultural works, few perhaps equal in flavour some of the older denizens of the fruit-garden, such as the old rough red and hairy amber. The climate of the British Islands seems peculiarly adapted to bring the gooseberry to perfection, and it may be grown successfully even in the most northern parts of Scotland; indeed, the flavour of the fruit is said to improve with increasing latitude. In Norway even, the bush flourishes in gardens on the west coast nearly up to the Arctic circle, and it is found wild as far north as 63°. The dry summers of the French and German plains are less suited to it, though it is grown in some hilly districts with tolerable success. The gooseberry in the south of England will grow well in cool situations, and may be sometimes seen in gardens near London flourishing under the partial shade of apple trees; but in the north it needs full exposure to the sun to bring the fruit to perfection. It will succeed in almost any soil, but prefers a rich loam or black alluvium, and, though naturally a plant of rather dry places, will do well in moist land, if drained.
The varieties are most easily propagated by cuttings planted in the autumn, which root rapidly, and in a few years form good fruit-bearing bushes. Much difference of opinion prevails regarding the mode of pruning this valuable shrub; it is probable that in different situations it may require varying treatment. The fruit being borne on the lateral spurs, and on the shoots of the last year, it is the usual practice to shorten the side branches in the winter, before the buds begin to expand; some reduce the longer leading shoots at the same time, while others prefer to nip off the ends of these in the summer while they are still succulent.
When large fruit is desired, plenty of manure should be supplied to the roots, and the greater portion of the berries picked off while still small. If standards are desired, the gooseberry may be with advantage grafted or budded on stocks of some other species of Ribes, R. aureum, the ornamental golden currant of the flower garden, answering well for the purpose. The giant gooseberries of the Lancashire fanciers are obtained by the careful culture of varieties specially raised with this object, the growth being encouraged by abundant manuring, and the removal of all but a very few berries from each plant. Single gooseberries of nearly 2 oz. in weight have been occasionally exhibited; but the produce of such fanciful horticulture is generally insipid. The bushes at times suffer much from the ravages of the caterpillars of the gooseberry or magpie moth, Abraxas grossulariala, which often strip the branches of leaves in the early summer, if not destroyed before the mischief is accomplished. The most effectual way of getting rid of this pretty but destructive insect is to look over each bush carefully, and pick off the larvae by hand; when larger they may be shaken off by striking the branches, but by that time the harm is generally done; the eggs are laid on the leaves of the previous season. Equally annoying in some years is the smaller larva of the V-moth, Semiothisa wauaria, which often appears in great numbers, and is not so readily removed. The gooseberry is sometimes attacked by the grub of the gooseberry sawfly, Nematus ribesii, of which several broods appear in the course of the spring and summer, and are very destructive. The grubs bury themselves in the ground to pass into the pupal state; the first brood of flies, hatched just as the bushes are coming into leaf in the spring, lay their eggs on the lower side of the leaves, where the small greenish larvae soon after emerge. For the destruction of the first broods it has been recommended to syringe the bushes with tar-water; perhaps a very weak solution of carbolic acid might prove more effective. The powdered root of white hellebore is said to destroy both this grub and the caterpillars of the gooseberry moth and V-moth; infusion of foxglove, and tobacco-water, are likewise tried by some growers. If the fallen leaves are carefully removed from the ground in the autumn and burnt, and the surface of the soil turned over with the fork or spade, most eggs and chrysalids will be destroyed. Spraying the plants with potassium sulphide has been found useful in fending off a variety of further parasites and fungi (such as the American gooseberry mildew) which may attack gooseberries specifically.
The gooseberry was introduced into the United States by the early settlers, and in some parts of New England large quantities of the green fruit are produced and sold for culinary use in the towns; but the excessive heat of the American summer is not adapted for the healthy maturation of the berries, especially of the English varieties. Perhaps if some of these, or those raised in the country, could be crossed with one of the indigenous species, kinds might be obtained better fitted for American conditions of culture, although the gooseberry does not readily hybridize.
Like other Ribes, the Gooseberry serves as an alternate host for white pine blister rust, which can cause serious injury to white pines. For this reason, there are laws against Gooseberry cultivation in some places.