Whenever people visit the gardens at Beekman 1802 Farm, one of the first things they ask is: “What are those things?!?” Before we even look to see where they’re pointing, we know they’re probably checking out our gooseberry bushes. Most folks have never seen a real gooseberry bush. Or even a real gooseberry in their market. Gooseberries are one of those fruits – like currants, boysenberries, huckleberries, persimmons, etc – that have a much higher name recognition than actual trial or use.
So why were gooseberries among the first fruits we planted at the Beekman? Well, when we first started researching the history of the 1802 farm and the crops that were grown during that era, we stumbled on some curious trivia. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was, believe it or not, a “Gooseberry Craze” that began in England and spread to America. At its height, the time, money, and passion spent on this humble berry would have made Beatlemania look like a passing fancy.
No one is exactly sure how the Gooseberry Craze began. The fruit had been fairly popular even before the fad started. Gooseberries are a close relative to currants in the ribe family, and are native to the cooler climes of northern Europe, the mountain regions of southern Europe, and far Western Asia. The berries come in several colors, including red, yellow, green and white varieties. There are also indigenous American species, though these were much smaller, tarter, and generally less palatable. Gooseberries were first cultivated in English and Dutch Gardens as early as the 16th century, and English colonists first brought the tastier English varieties to America, where they soon became nearly as popular here as in England. In fact, gooseberries were included in the favorite dessert recipes of at least three U.S. Presidents, including John Adams (Gooseberry Fool,) Abraham Lincoln (Gooseberry Pie,) and James Buchanan (Gooseberry Tart.)
But sometime, around 1800, gooseberries began taking over the English imagination. “Gooseberry Clubs” began forming. In nearly every region of the country, gardeners began cultivating new varieties of the fruit – over 2500, by some count. These breeders even created their own Frankenstein cross between their much-loved gooseberry, and another favorite, the black currant. The result was dubbed a “Jostaberry,” and it remains in limited cultivation today.
At the height of their popularity, there were over 170 Gooseberry Clubs in Britain, and at least two formal clubs in America. Their meetings and yearly competitions were breathlessly reported in the newspapers of the day. The main purpose of these clubs was a competition for growing the largest, heaviest Gooseberry. While most gooseberries are approximately the size and shape of an average green grape, some of the early prize-winning “monsters” weighed almost an ounce and a half, and were the size of small plums. These contests were held in such importance that the entries were weighed using grains of sand, meted out individually with the use of a feather.
Much secrecy formed around top growers’ prize-winning propagation methods. Husbands and wives were allowed to compete against each other, but had to grow their fruit in separate, contained areas of their garden. Growers developed elaborate cultivation procedures, including plucking all of the unripe berries from a bush except for one, which they hoped would absorb all of the energy of the plant. Other strange rituals took hold, such as placing a saucer of milk directly underneath a ripening berry, so that the blossom end dipped into the liquid, and purportedly sucked up more nutrients. Of course most of these procedures have no scientific merit, but added to the cult-like fever of the competitions.
The demise of the Gooseberry Craze came swiftly, in 1905, when a mildew disease from American plants was introduced to England, nearly wiping out all of the gooseberries in the country. Perhaps this was a form of karmic payback, since the introduction of new European gooseberry varieties to America around 1900 brought a deadly fungus to these shores. That fungal blight, dubbed White Pine Blister Rust, was hosted on ribe plants, and began killing swaths of America’s valuable pine forests. As a result, the propagation of many ribes were outlawed, and it’s still illegal to ship gooseberries and other ribe plants to Idaho, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington.
But probably what most diminished interest in gooseberries was their sudden trendiness. Like all fads, the Gooseberry Craze was a victim of its own popularity. After World War I and through the 1920’s, when the world began embracing all things “modern,” the fusty idea of gardeners competing for prizes with an old-fashioned fruit seemed hopelessly passe. Gooseberries were stricken from chic menus, and with the advent of better food distribution systems, more exotic fruits from around the world supplanted the familiar native gooseberry on grocer’s shelves. Only a handful of all the thousands of gooseberry varieties developed during the 19th century remain in cultivation today, and almost none of them commercially. There are no Gooseberry Clubs extant in America and only two left in England, the oldest of which, Eton Bridge, was founded in 1801 – one year before William Beekman built his mansion and farm.
Maybe that’s why gooseberry bushes were among the first crops we planted at the Beekman 1802 Farm. Like “taking the waters” in Sharon Springs, the gooseberry lost its popularity with the advent of modern ideas, and we think it’s a shame to desert an old favorite dessert simply because it’s no longer fashionable. So let’s all start the Gooseberry Craze of the 21st Century.
Don’t have gooseberries for sale near you? Buy red or green varieties them frozen from Northwest Wild Foods.
Rather plant your own? We bought ours from Indiana Berry Company