A gander at gooseberries

If a late frost occurs when the flowers have formed your gooseberry bush is unlikely to be affected.

Gooseberries are one of those quintessentially delicious summer berries that readily grow in Ireland but for some reason they receive much less attention than their strawberry and raspberry brethren.

If you say that you have no interest in gooseberries, it may be just that you have never tasted a fine dessert variety, packed with sweetness and a unique flavour, with the sweetest cultivars usually being red in colour.

Known as berries, gooseberries may be smooth, fuzzy or spiny, opaque, translucent, or white and are actually a member of the Ribes (currant) family. They are particularly delicious when eaten in season, which happens to be now.

They can be grown as bushes, cordons and fans and a well-maintained bush will last between 15 – 20 years and will produce the second summer after planting. Gooseberry bushes are extremely hardy plants, hardier than apple trees for instance. If a late frost occurs when the flowers have formed your gooseberry bush is unlikely to be affected.

Though gooseberries are hardy and easy to grow, they also are susceptible to pests and disease with the gooseberry saw fly being one of the most devastating. Quite a few people have remarked this year about an invasion of caterpillars on their gooseberry bushes, which are technically not caterpillars but the larvae of the gooseberry saw fly. These pale green caterpillar-like larvae have many black spots and black heads and will devour the leaves of your bushes to the point of complete defoliation. Be vigilant and inspect bushes carefully.

Hand picking is probably the best advice and ensure to crush any eggs and larvae on the underside of leaves, or remove the entire leaf if heavily infested. Look out for leaves in the centre of the bush with the characteristic ‘pin-holed’ appearance, as this indicates newly emerged larvae. The effect of the gooseberry saw fly larvae attack is to remove all the foliage from bushes but fruits themselves are not eaten.

However, a plant with no leaves is seriously weakened and not capable of producing mature fruit. It will also be weakened significantly when it begins growth next year. One of the best routes to prevention is to understand the saw fly life cycle whose larvae overwinter in the top soil around gooseberry plants. Remove mulches in late autumn/winter and cultivate lightly round the bushes to encourage birds to clear up the cocoons in the soil. Next mulch plants heavily with cardboard and farmyard manure. Both actions help break the lifecycle of this devastating gooseberry pest as larvae reserves in soil are reduced and heavy mulches prevent the saw fly emerging from the soil the following spring and laying eggs on the leaves which will hatch out more larvae.

Like most fruit, gooseberries are a good source of vitamins and are a significant source of fibre and like all berries, they are brimming with a variety of important nutrients, including vitamins A and C, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, sodium and several B vitamins.

Most gooseberries are about the size of a grape, but depending on the growing conditions and the variety, the berries may be as small as a blueberry or as large as a cherry tomato.

The colour of the berries may be pale green, deep red or purple. While ripe gooseberries are enjoyable fresh, green gooseberries are tart and are usually cooked into desserts, jams or jellies. Gooseberries have characteristic attached stems and after harvesting, fruits need to be “topped and tailed“, a skill I learned at an early age. Bushes are thorny so care is needed when picking and may demand leather gloves and certainly slow and steady harvesting methods. They are best picked at their fullest size before they become over-ripe and clearly before the birds get them.

If you plan to make jam or sauce, the more bitter of the slightly smaller gooseberries are the ones to pick first.

For making pies and other sweet treats, only harvest those gooseberries that have reached full size.

GOOSEBERY JAM: My earliest garden and jam memories go back to ‘topping’ and ‘tailing’ gooseberries and helping my mum to make gooseberry jam.

INGREDIENTS: 2kg gooseberries 1litre water 2kg sugar

Instructions: 1. Top and tail gooseberries. Wash and Drain.

2. Put in greased pan with water and simmer until fruit is soft.

3. Add sugar and stir until it is dissolved.

4. Bring mixture to the boil rapidly until setting point is reached.

5. Remove any scum.

6. Ladle into cooled, sterilised jars and seal.

(A few elderflowers in muslin can add a fantastic floral twist to this jam.)


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