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Why A Small Purple Fruit Was Banned In The USA For Almost 100 Years

Or, why Europeans are confused by purple grape flavor candy.

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

Editor and Staff Writer

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blackcurrant berries on a branch with leaves

A tasty treat or the scourge of the timber industry, depending on which side of Atlantic you fall on.

Image credit: Swetlana Wall/Shutterstock.com

If you’re a Brit reading this, we have some news that may shock you. No seriously – you may want to sit down for this. Many Americans have never tasted the flavor of blackcurrant. Told you it was shocking. “But what about purple sweets?!” you cry. Well… most of them are grape-flavored. Now that the Brits have lost consciousness and the Americans are looking on in bemusement, we can dive into the story of why this tasty teaser came to pass, and for that we have to go back in time to the dawn of the last century.

What are blackcurrants?

Blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) are small purple berries that grow on deciduous shrubs native to northern Europe and Asia. They are rich in vitamin C, and their strong flavor is equally delicious when they’re eaten raw or used in cooking. Now a staple of British and many other European cuisines, you’ll find no shortage of blackcurrant-containing products, from jams to alcoholic beverages, on grocery store shelves.

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As we’ve alluded to, blackcurrant is also very often the default “purple” flavor for candy and drinks, hence the confusion of many a British tourist when they open their first pack of US Skittles, or pick up a can of purple Fanta.

While blackcurrant plants are not native to the US, they were at one time a favorite of fruit farmers, particularly in New York State. It’s been estimated that nearly 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) was given over to the cultivation of blackcurrants, and the closely related white currants and gooseberries, in the late 19th century. 

But there was a problem. A fungus was beginning to attack the all-important pine forests that were essential for the US timber industry, and Ribes shrubs were fingered as the culprit. 

The war on blackcurrants begins

White pine blister rust is caused by the fungus Cronartium ribicola, and it’s bad news for pine trees. In order to complete its life cycle, the fungus must infect both a currant or gooseberry bush and a pine tree, so it makes sense that horticulturalists would be concerned about these plants being grown in close proximity. 

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Spurred on by calls from the logging industry to protect its workers’ livelihoods, the federal government took decisive action. In the early 1900s, with the powers granted it under the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912, the Department of Agriculture began prohibiting the growth of blackcurrant and similar plants.

As Warren V. Benedict summarized in the 1981 book History of White Pine Blister Rust Control – A Personal Account, “So discovery of a few small pine trees infected with blister rust was to trigger a gigantic fight to protect the white pines of America, a fight that has been waged coast to coast for 70 years.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise date, but many sources cite 1911 as the year when the great blackcurrant ban began. What we do know is that lots of government documents from the 1920s and 30s mention the prohibition and efforts to contain the spread of blister rust, and that scientists were also exploring ways of eradicating the plants. 

Back to black(currant)

Things began to look up for lovers of blackcurrants in the mid-20th century when disease-resistant cultivars began to be developed. But fears about the threat to pine trees had been embedded in people’s memory for some time by then, plus the fact that most consumers had never tasted a blackcurrant and so were not clamoring for their reintroduction. In 1966, the government allowed individual states to lift the ban, but progress was slow.

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In New York State, once the center of blackcurrant cultivation in the country, the ban was lifted in 2003 thanks largely to the efforts of one man: Greg Quinn. After liaising with researchers at Cornell University to confirm that the plants could indeed be grown safely, Quinn set about lobbying the state government to overturn the ban, as well as visiting numerous European countries to learn more about their cultivation from local growers.

Through his CurrantC™ brand, Quinn now produces and champions blackcurrant products – but this is not without it’s difficulties, in a country where most people, if asked, still would not be able to describe the flavor of the berry. “This may be the last product that everybody knows about except the US,” Quinn told Business Insider

“A large majority [of Americans] have never eaten one – probably less than 0.1 [percent],” said Marvin Pritts of Cornell University, also speaking to Business Insider.

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That’s a fact that will remain hard to believe for UK residents (if they’ve regained consciousness by now). After all, what child growing up in Britain has not experienced the flavor of Ribena, a blackcurrant cordial that’s mixed with water before drinking, and which first gained popularity as a vitamin C supplement during World War 2?

So that’s the story of why the humble blackcurrant remains so little-known in the USA, and why “purple” flavor means two very different things on each side of the Atlantic. Nowadays, blackcurrant products are creeping onto the US market, so they’re not impossible to find. But some of the fear and confusion still remains, as evidenced by Kathy Saunders’ 2019 account in the Tampa Bay Times

Not wishing to fall foul of state legislation, but keen to taste the once-forbidden fruit, Saunders was eventually given a somewhat equivocal response from officials: “So are they legal in Florida? The best answer I could get is: probably.”

Although, after all that, it turned out that the fruit Saunders wanted to try was actually a Zante currant – not a blackcurrant at all, but a type of dried grape. It’s a surprisingly easy mistake to make. 


ARTICLE POSTED IN

natureNaturenatureplants
  • tag
  • plants,

  • fruit,

  • farming,

  • history,

  • logging,

  • America,

  • weird and wonderful,

  • blackcurrant

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