Many gardeners we speak with have never heard of Catalina Currant. It’s not a particularly dazzling or showy shrub, and as such it is an often overlooked plant.  It is unlikely to be found in your average run-of-the-mill plant nurseries, but nurseries that specialize in California native plants do frequently offer this species for sale.

Catalina Currant (Ribes viburnifolium)

Also known as Santa Catalina Island Currant, Island Gooseberry, Catalina Perfume, or Evergreen currant, Catalina Currant (Ribes viburnifolium)  has a limited natural range.  This species is native to Santa Catalina Island, and parts of Baja, California.  However, it is relatively rare in its natural habitat, where it favors growing in shaded canyons and on wooded slopes. The California Native Plant Society lists Ribes viburnifolium as a ‘fairly endangered species’.  As such, you are much more likely to encounter this plant in cultivated gardens on the west coast, than in the wild.

Ribes viburnifolium no doubt gets its common name, Catalina Perfume, because the stems and leaves of this shrub are highly aromatic, especially after rainfall.  Some liken the aroma to apples, others to pine.  Unlike most species of Ribes, the evergreen leaves of Catalina Currant are quite waxy in texture, with relatively minimal veining.

The leaves of Ribes viburnifolium are waxy in texture, and the leaf surface quite smooth

Catalina currant is an arching and sprawling shrub, and is a good ground-cover choice for dry dappled shade. Allowed to grow in its natural form it can be somewhat open and leggy in habit.  The graceful, arching, wine-red stems reach 2-3 feet tall, and 8-10 feet in length, but its loose growing habit can also cause it to become overwhelmed with weeds and grasses.

The new growth of Ribes viburnifolium has bright red stems, fading to a rich mahogany or wine-red color with age

If pruned regularly while young, the shrub will take take on a more compact and densely shrubby habit, and this is the form that is typically seen in cultivated gardens.  If allowed to grow naturally, keeping the area weed-free while the plants establish themselves is advisable.  In winter, with sufficient rains, where the arching stems reach the ground, this shrub will readily root across a bank or slope, making it an excellent choice for erosion control on shaded slopes.

Ribes viburnifolium freely roots along its branches in the presence of sufficient moisture, making this species easy to propagate

Ribes viburnifolium begins to bloom in early spring, continuing through early to mid-April, but has relatively insignificant flowers compared to the more showy native Ribes species, like Ribes malvaceum, and Ribes sanguineum.  Catalina Currant sets small clusters of flowers with wine-colored petals, surrounding bright white stamens.

Ribes viburnifolium in bloom

While attractive at close range when in bloom, the flowers are not particularly showy when viewed from afar, however they do provide a nectar source for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies.  This makes it a valuable addition to any California garden.

The delicate flowers of Ribes viburnifolium are beautiful when viewed up close, but lack presence from a distance

In cultivated gardens this plant is reported to rarely set fruit.  Our plants are still quite young, and thus far have not been pruned.  Instead we’re choosing to allow the plants to take on their natural form on a slope at the edge of an area of woodland comprised of a mix of oak, bay, and occasional redwood.  Our plants did produce scant fruit last fall, and we’re curious to see if the fruit set improves as the plants become established. The fruits are edible, raw or cooked, and are favored by birds.

Fruit of Ribes viburnifolium is edible, raw or cooked

Catalina Currant is not particularly cold-hardy, and will suffer leaf-burn and die-back between 10-15 F.  In milder climates though, Catalina currant is an excellent plant for dry shade, and as such has tremendous value in west coast gardens for growing beneath oaks, where summer watering is often detrimental to the health of the trees.  Catalina currant is exceptionally drought tolerant in clay soils.

Deer tend to leave this plant alone, especially once established, although young tender plants may be vulnerable.

If you have native California oaks on your property, or an area of dry shade where little else will grow, Ribes viburnifolium is definitely worthy of allocating a little space for in your garden.