Red currants blossoming, Tawayik Lake, Elk Island National Park, May 2013
As a general note -- I am not a professional botanist or a herbalist. The knowledge I am passing along here was taught to me by my dad, who learned it from others who knew the northern bush, and my baba whose knowledge came primarily from her mama and baba in the Ukrainian Carpathians. There are probably many other uses for these plants; I am only passing on what I have been taught directly, and in most cases, tried myself, so this is not exhaustive by any means. Be careful with wild plants: do your own research too so you are well-versed in their identification and uses, and take into consideration your own body -- everyone reacts a little differently especially to new foods they have never tried before. So there's my disclaimer!
So here is the first entry in my Alberta Herbal: the red currant (Ribes triste).
Parts to use: berries, leaves (when young, never wilted!)
Uses: Vitamin C source, good for respiratory ailments (coughs and colds) and system immunity, gastrointestinal issues, anti-inflammatory and cleansing tonic.
Most currants are not a huge shrub, and this one is rarely found growing more than half a metre high, and tend to like wet, rocky woods, and swampy places. The ones in the photo are growing near a marshy lakeshore, in the shade of some balsam poplars and aspens. The leaves, which you can just see, have five palmate lobes -- a commonality among all the members of the currant and gooseberry family
The blossom of our red currants, with their pinkish-red centres, look quite similar to those of the prickly black currant (Ribes lacustre), also found in the northern Alberta parklands and boreal. However, at this stage you can tell them apart by the lack of raspberry-bush-like prickles on the stem of the red currants. They begin flowering in late May and the tart-tasting, bright, semi-translucent red berries will begin to form in July, ripening in mid-to-late summer here in Alberta.
Both the red and black currant berries and leaves are highly edible, though North American black currant leaves give off a slightly-to-extremely skunk-ish aroma, and are less palatable in teas (European and Siberian black currant leaves are much more pleasant). The leaves, when harvested in spring and early summer, are also medicinal. (Never ingest them once the leaves begin to wilt, though, as toxins build up as they age and could really harm your stomach). Now would be a good time to gather some, as they are nice and fresh.
My dad always told me that currants are among the best berries for preventing scurvy if you get lost in the woods as they are extremely high in Vitamin C (black are a little better than red, apparently, but both will keep you healthy!). They are also high in copper, an important trace element. He mentioned that chewing a few berries can help with nausea and stomach upset, and also stimulate the appetite after gastrointestinal issues.
My baba would have told you to cook them down with sugar into a jam, sauce, or syrup. Porichky ('red currants' in Ukrainian) were used in her village, she told me, primarily as simple sustenance but were also used as remedies for coughs (reduced into a thick syrup). When her family first arrived in Canada, they lived on a farm east of Edmonton in the Beaver Hills, were red currants still grow abundantly. Doctors were few and far between, and red currants (often mixed with elderberries) were one of the most important cough and cold remedies, and were also taken to generally improve respiratory health (pneumonia, whooping cough and diphtheria were especially feared at the time).
My dad never mentioned much about the leaves, but my baba told me that fresh or dried leaves were also good in teas taken a few times daily to ease respiratory symptoms as well, and 'settle the stomach' after bouts of diarrhea. Back home in the Carpathians, she said that leaves were sometimes steeped in vodka, which was then diluted with water to be used as a cleansing tonic. People with arthritic issues also took it, so it's likely currants have decent anti-inflammatory properties as well.
Unfortunately I never witnessed the making of the vodka concoction, but if you are good at making tinctures and infusions, you may want to experiment.
I will include photos later in the season when the berries develop further as well as recipes for the berries. More general tips about drying leaves and berries to come as well...