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Ribes lacustre

syn. Limnobotrya lacustris, Ribes oxycanthoides var. lacustre, Ribes lacustre var. parvulum
Family: Grossulariaceae
Pronounced: RyE-bees luh-KUS-tree


Geographic Origin:
Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Wyoming, and Canada.
Plant Group:
Sunset zones: Not listed.
USDA zones:4-8.
Mature size:
Height: 3-5 feet (90-150 cm).
Width: 5 feet (150 cm).
Flowering period:
Mid spring to early summer.
Flowering attributes:
Racemes holding 5 to 15, tiny, pink to purple flowers that age to cinnamon hues, with green or purple sepals; a saucer-shaped calyx and short stamens are followed by ¼-inch, dark purple-to-black berries covered in glandular hairs.
Leaf attributes:
Deciduous, maple-like, green leaves, 1½-2 inches across, with 3-7 deep lobes, alternately arranged on stems with prickles between the nodes and sharp spines at the nodes.
Full sun to partial shade.
Moist, humus rich soil.
Propagation Methods:
Sow fresh seed in fall and place in cold frame. If seed is stored, allow 4-6 month cold stratification and plant in early spring. Seed is viable for 17 years.
Take semi-ripe cuttings in fall.
Pests and Diseases:
Mostly disease resistant; however, all ribes can harbor white pine blister rust, so growing near pines is not recommended. Susceptible to honey fungus.

Rainy Side Notes

Ribes comes from the Arabic word ribas, which means acid-tasting (fruit). Lacustre comes from the Latin word lacus, which means "of lakes."

I found this plant growing near seepage from our foundation drains. I didn't recognize the flowers but the branches with prickles looked a lot like the California native, Ribes speciosum. Intrigued by the many racemes of tiny pink flowers dangling from its branches and cinnamon colored bark, I was delighted to find it growing on the property and identified it soon after. By delighted I mean, anytime I can find a new native species on my property, I get a little thrill, dance a little jig. If I have to identify what it is, I'm dancing all over the garden in anticipation of learning about another native plant.

The difference between a currant and gooseberry is that the latter will goose you with its prickles, while the currants are disarmed. Yet Ribes lacustre's many common names include both. Nevertheless, this has lots of prickles along its stems. So I am in favor of calling it black swamp gooseberry, since that name is descriptive of its black berries, and it names a favorite place to grow. Besides, gooseberries are the ones with the prickles.

This native shrub grows all through Canada and in many U.S. states, from coastlines to subalpine elevations. In two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, it is threatened; in Pennsylvania it's on the endangered list from loss of habitat. Here in the Pacific Northwest and other states, the plant grows commonly in wetlands, along creeks, seeps and in swamps. It is equally at home in non-wetlands, on rocky soils, and in forests. In addition, it can take drier conditions when grown in shade.

In the landscape, the prickly shrubs make practical barrier hedges where it can grow erect or sprawl lower to the ground. This species is useful in areas that are too wet for most plants. For wildlife, the flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds, while the berries provide food for birds such as towhees, cedar waxwings, grouse and woodpeckers. Mammals such as chipmunks, coyote, deer, elk, foxes, mountain beavers, porcupines, raccoons, skunks, and squirrels also eat the dark black fruit.

The berries are strong tasting, but palatable when ripe, and make a tasty jam. Use caution when handling this shrub; the spines are known to cause skin reactions in some people.


Native Americans around the Northwest region utilized every part of Ribes lacustre for food, fiber, tools, and medicinal purposes. Although, the Swinomish considered the prickles poisonous, the Oweekeno thought the whole plant was noxious. This may be in part because of the allergic skin reactions some people had after being scratched by the prickles.

The Bella Coola, Haisla, Hanaksiala, and Skagit used the fruit for food. The Salish boiled and dried the berries to make cakes for winter use. Thompson people buried the berries when fresh, for later use, and dried them too.

For rope, the Saanich boiled the roots with cedar and rose roots, then pounded it and wove into rope. The Cowichan used the roots to make reef nets. The Salish used the spines to poke boils, remove splinters and as a tattoo tool.

If someone should have an allergic reaction to the prickles, the Bella Coola chewed the bark and leaves and tied the concoction to the sores. They also made a laxative out of the roots to help with constipation. However, another tribe outside the region used the plant as an antidiarrheal. To give newborns intelligence and obedience, the Saanich bathed the child in a wash made of cherry and swamp gooseberry roots.

The Skagit people peeled the bark and boiled it for tea. During childbirth, women would drink it. The Skagit and Lummi used the tea for body aches and as a wash for sore eyes. The Thompson took the cambium layer to make a wash for sore eyes. A tonic for the stomach was made with the wood, while a decoction of roots and stems was used for someone with a slight illness.

More Ribes in the gallery.

Photographed in author's garden.

Rainy Side Gardeners —