It’s mid-December, hardly the time to think of planting anything, right? But, here in Southern California, it’s different. The ground is not frozen, and the rain softens the soil. The first rains of the year will fall now and nourish new roots, helping new plants to acclimate.
It’s time for planning your spring wildlife garden, and time to look at the Ribes family. Ribes are a family of wild, edible, berry bushes, native to California, that provide edible spring berries to California’s wildlife gardens. The genus Ribes includes many species of Currants and Gooseberries.
Ribes can be found throughout most of California. There are many Ribes species for the state’s different types of climates and ecosystems. So no matter where in California you garden, there should be a native species right for you. Ribes berries are not only edible, but downright tasty. The birds in the garden think so, too. Some of the birds that enjoy Ribes berries include: California Thrasher, Hermit Thrush, and the American Robin.
Golden Currants, Ribes aureum gracillimum
Golden currants make a neat bush without any spines. A small, low growing thicket about 6 ft wide and 3-6ft tall, Ribes aureum has lots of yellow flowers that are popular with hummingbirds. Its berries start out yellow and turn red as they ripen. It is similar to Ribes aureum aureum, except Ribes aureum aureum needs a hard winter freeze. If you live in the higher elevations, you would choose aureum aureum, but for the rest of us, aureum gracillimum is the species of choice, adapting to a wide range of conditions.
Beautiful, as well as functional, Golden Currant provides a superior bird habitat. It is an excellent choice if you want to attract the California Thrasher to your wildlife garden.
Berry eating birds, like the California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum), love the Golden currants in late spring. Currants can grow in Southern Oak Woodland, Chaparral and Soft Scrub ecosystems, and along the coast ranges. In the canyons of Malibu they cover the canyon bottoms with their soft yellow color. It is also a good ground cover under oaks.
The California Thrasher does not migrate in winter. It is a common and welcome sight to see the Thrasher pecking around in leaf litter for insects with its long, curved beak. In December, the Thrasher can be found enjoying Toyon’s (Heteromeles arbutifolia) bright red Christmas berries in the Chaparral.
Planting Currants will also bring Hummingbirds into your garden in spring. Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies are all attracted to the blooms. Even Monarchs love the early spring flowers. The Golden Currant is a forage source for Tailed Copper Butterfly, Cloudy Copper, Zephyr Anglewing, and Oreas Anglewing.
CanyonGooseberry, Ribes menziesii
Canyon gooseberry is a drought tolerant shrub with maroon-purple and white flowers. Do not plant near walkways, as it likes to “catch” passersby. This species has many forms that are native to the coast ranges of Californias up to Southern Oregon. This species is deciduous in summer; it will lose its leaves under heat or drought stress. If you water it in the summer, it will die of root rot, but you can water indirectly by planting it 10ft away from a lawn or garden flower bed. Ribes menziesii is great for a bird garden.
White-flowered-currant, Ribes indecorum
Extremely drought tolerant, this is likely the most drought tolerant Ribes in California. (Except maybe R. aureum) It grows in Chaparral and Coastal sage scrub throughout southern and central California. The White-flowered currant can grow to 6ft tall. It is commonly found growing in the shade of large oaks, along seasonal creeks and on north or east slopes. It can survive a harsh (hot & dry) summer environment by going summer deciduous. After the first rain, it comes out of dormancy. (That would be NOW, as we just had a good rain!) In February, the currant will bloom white fragrant flowers, which are beloved by hummingbirds, bumblebees, moths and specific native bees. It is great in a bird garden, adjusts well to garden environments, and has tasty fruit.
The list of Ribes family members goes on and on, each providing edible wild berries for humans and birds alike, and acting as a magnet for bees & butterflies in the spring. It may be chilly out in this month of December, but if you are ready to put on your gloves and do some digging in the wildlife garden, you couldn’t make a better choice than Ribes. The birds and the butterflies will thank you, over & over again~
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