Gardening: Gooseberries offer many health benefits

When I was younger I wasn’t a big fan of gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa), my grandfather had a few bushes between the roses in his small front garden in Dublin and it was the thorniest plant I ever encountered but I swear it was crossed with a triffid — as no matter how slow and careful you would be, you would never get your hand out of its mouth with a fruit, without it turning its teeth toward you.

Even today if I look close enough there are the traces of the scars — physical and emotional.

But I’m coming round. Back then I didn’t favour the tart flavour either and so the blood-loss didn’t match the prize, but I was at that chore age of “off you go and pick enough for a tart” or applying a can of water to the roots — and thus the nervous encounters.

I think as you mature your palate changes and now I don’t mind the auld “goosegob” in a fruit salad.

But it’s their nutrition and health benefits that impress me and encourage me to now grow my own.

Gooseberries, like most fruits, are rich in Vitamin C — with all its benefits to our immune system and to maintenance and repair of all body tissues — but they have a concentration of Vitamin C in the higher rankings and they don’t lose vast quantities of it when cooked, unlike some others.

So a gooseberry tart is not only a tonic, its not so tart, as the cooking also sweetens the berry.

There is an old proverb about the advice of your elders: “Like a gooseberry; sour first then sweet.”

I see that clearly now. With the actual gooseberry, the raw fruit can pucker the lips but there is a juicy joy too.

Much of those flavour molecules are comprised of flavones and antioxidant polyphenolics that help lower inflammation and can dial back neurological pain/sensations. So it’s not only the apple a day.

The green ones are great but the red ones have more plant pigments that also are a boon to human health — those anthocyanins yielding even stronger anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and even anti-mutagenic properties to our cells.

I grow some red varieties for this reason and because I value the aesthetic too.

I have nicked the trick of my grandfather to give them a little shelter belt of some roses. That, and keeping all the thorns in one place.

Vital nutrients

No matter the colour, gooseberries are packed with vitamins and minerals including vitamin A for better eyesight, folates and B vitamins for energy, metabolism and adrenal gland support, iron for healthy blood circulation and oxygenation of the brain, potassium for more stable blood pressure and also they are a plant source of omega fatty acids which as a vegetarian I find helpful — not eating oily fish, I do have to be creative and vigilant with nutritional top-ups of A,D, and broad-spectrum omegas.

In France the gooseberry is known as groseille à maquereau, which denotes “the currant for mackerel”, and whatever about favourable compliment, gooseberry sauce helps one process the fatty content including the healthy oils more efficiently.

The English name is the derived also from a culinary usage as a sauce for goose — again a fatty meal. Our name for it is spíonán — clearly our ancestors also had an issue with the spikes guarding its treasure.

Gooseberries are easy to grow in Ireland but they don’t like wind so positioning is the secret to success.

They are right in season now, so you can taste and decide on which variety you may wish to grow.

The tradition is as goblet-pruned (open-centre) bushes but cordons and fans are cool looking and maybe easier to harvest.

It may well take a full year before you get any harvest off a new plant but it will yield for more than a decade thereafter — with ease.

You often hear of hardy plants but still a late frost may wipe out the flowers — that’s not great if you are looking for those flowers to become edible fruits but gooseberry flowers seem to be more resilient than apples, pears, strawberries and other fruits we regularly grow that we may have to mummify in horticultural fleece if there is a nip in the air.

What I like is they are not overly fussy about soil but a good organic amendment before planting will improve yield for many years to come.

They can tolerate some shade, and will even fruit on a north-facing wall.

They can sucker a bit and those are best removed to keep energy and plant variety integrity. It is one of those fruiters where the fruit develops on the older wood, not on the current season’s growth but which is initially pruned to train a shape — hence the non- or limited-fruiting first year or two.

So with a bush type, in year one the general wisdom is to remove all but four-six main stems to develop that open (goblet) structure.

Year two, prune to make a neat framework. Thereafter the main emphasis is to remove overlapping or problem stems.

That said, commercial growers and avid allotmenteers will spur prune in winter; that’s cutting back all side shoots to one-to-three buds from the base to encourage fruiting spurs to form.

With fans and cordons (apart from editing stems to shape up), we can also spur from year two, to prompt more productive outer-facing buds. Sounds more complicated than it is.

Don’t let it put you off — these plants are naturally inclined to fruit in the wild without sight of a secateurs. Pruning is just a gardener’s way of manipulating larger harvests.

Take care

Gooseberries can be a bit vulnerable to leaf spot and fungal attack. They are greedy feeders of potash and if depleted their immune system can be compromised.

If it is on shallow soil or are overwatered, the plant can be diminished or become mildewed.

I am a fan of garlic spray and even the milk treatment as a green alternative to treating mildew and fungal infection but also one can select mildew-resistant varieties such as Hinnonmäki Röd’, ‘Invicta’, or greenfinch.

Birds, capsids and moth caterpillars can be an issue; nets help.

Gooseberry sawfly is the main bane — you can get nematodes, you can get busy picking them off or you can hit them where it hurts with some naturally toxic pyrethrins derived from Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium as long as you don’t have cats as pets (some natural toxins extend to many species and creatures) or asthma.

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