Ribes rubrum, var. sativum. Red Currant by Sowerby, circa 1883.
Ribes rubrum, var. sativum. Red Currant, drawn by James Sowerby, published in the third edition of English Botany, c.1883.
Red currants are a member of the Ribes genus which includes over one hundred species of plants. It belongs to the gooseberry family, Grossulariaceae, though some botanist suggest placing it in the family Saxifragaceae. Red currants are native to several countries in Western Europe including Belgium, France, and Germany. Some varieties of red currant have been introduced to other regions as the well. A deciduous shrub, Ribes rubrum grow to be one to two meters tall. The leaves have five lobes and they grow in a spiral arrangement. Yellow-green flowers grow on pendulous racemes, which are unbranched and indeterminate shoots. They mature into small edible red berries that can be consumed raw or prepared. One bush can produce between six to eight pounds of berries in a season. Within the species are several varieties, called cultivars, which have been selectively bred to enhance certain qualities of the plant. Belgium was the first to create a large berried cultivar and France's BAr-le-duc, or Lorraine Jelly, is made of select currants. White currants are an albino variation of the species and have a sweeter flavor than its red counterpart.
James Sowerby (1757-1822) was an English naturalist and illustrator. He studied at the Royal Academy and was apprenticed to Richard Wright. He provided the illustrations for William Curtis' Flora Londinensis. In 1790 he embarked on his first of several large scale publication projects, English Botany. His large corpus of works appeared in a variety of publications and journals. Some of his multi-volumed projects were so large they had to be finished by later generations of his family.
English Botany was a major publication of British plants. It totaled thirty-six volumes over twenty-three years, beginning in 1790 and finished in 1813. There were two thousand five hundred ninety-two hand-colored engravings by Sowerby. In 1788 Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828), founder of the Linnean Society, provided the textual descriptions that accompanied the plates. Since his name was absent from the title of the first four volumes it lead to a belief that Sowerby wrote it. The omission, which had been a request by Smith to remain anonymous, was later corrected. But the name "Sowerby's Botany" is often still applied to the work. Several editions of the work were published and this print is from the third edition.
- Naomi Bean