Among California native gooseberries, Ribes amarum is arguably no superstar. Its undeniably understated charms probably explain why you can rarely find it at California native nurseries. Bitter Gooseberry simply doesn’t have the showy blossoms of more extroverted local gooseberries like Ribes speciosum (Fuschia Flowered Gooseberry), although it does share its plethora of devilishly sharp spines. In addition, its growth habit could admittedly be called a little “leggy.” Despite these purely aesthetic considerations (let’s not call them “shortcomings”), Ribes amarum more than makes up for any perceived deficits by virtue of its absolute perfection as an understory plant for Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), which is where you will often observe it growing in the wild.
Once established, Ribes amarum needs virtually no supplemental water, making it an ideal companion planting for these mighty trees, which can be weakened or even killed by regular summer watering. (It would also do well, presumably, in the dappled shade of any large tree’s canopy.)
From the proper perspective, even its somewhat gawky, floppy form can be seen as a virtue: a single plant quickly forms a sprawling, thorny little thicket, a great place for birds to escape from well-fed but wicked pussycats. While they’re hiding out, birds love to feast on its spiny fruit (which is also humanly edible but scarcely worth the effort). What’s more, Bitter Gooseberry is a seriously underappreciated, truly local L.A. native. Planting it is less a splashy, garden coup de theatre and more a humble act of renewal, reintroducing a long-lost, former inhabitant to our oak-graced neighborhoods.
We offer Ribes amarum in 2–4″ pots, ready to take off (they are super fast) in that particularly problematic spot in your garden that calls out for plants that prefer “dry shade.”