Winter Currant

Ribes indecorum

bush with tiny white flowers and textured green leaves
Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

Winter currant (Ribes indecorum) may be the earliest flowering shrub in The Reserve, sometimes in full bloom by Christmas. The tiny but abundant white flowers and the gray-green leaves against the reddish bark make an eye-catching display.

Because few plants are blooming now, this is an important nectar source for bees and hummingbirds. Some believe that the early breeding season or our local Anna’s Hummingbird is facilitated by the winter nectar from winter-blooming species of Ribes.

Other Common Names:

white-flowered current, white chaparral current

Description 11,59,174,290,306

Winter current is a deciduous shrub with upright, spreading branches. It may reach 8 or 9 feet (2.5 or 3 m) in height. All parts of the plant are glandular-hairy and pleasantly aromatic. The stems are green when young, becoming chestnut with age; the older bark sheds in plates giving a shaggy appearance. The leaves occur in clusters from short branchlets along the branches. Leaves are thickened and crinkled, usually 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 – 4 cm) long. Leaves are rounded with short petioles and palmately veined with three to five broad, shallow lobes. Leaves are green and velvety on top, white-woolly below. They resemble the leaves of mallow or geranium, but the plants are not related.

The small, bisexual flowers occur in clusters of 10-25 that hang from the branchlets. One flower is only 2/8 – 3/8 inch (0.6 – 0.8 cm) across. The base of the flower (hypanthium) is not flat, as in most flowers, but curved up into a deep cup, the inner surface of which produces copious nectar. The five white sepals arise from the top edge of the hypanthium, spreading and recurving with age and resembling petals. The five smaller, white petals are somewhat triangular in shape. They stand erect, forming a central crown around the stamens and pistil. There are five stamens that extend to the throat of the flower. The single pistil has a mostly-inferior, one chambered ovary with a forked style, each branch with a knobbed stigma. Winter current blooms for a rather short period between November and March.1

The withered flower persists on the developing fruit. The mature fruit is a small berry, less than 1/2 inch (1 cm) wide, containing numerous small seeds. The maturing berry changes from green to yellow to red and finally purple. It has a waxy coating and is covered with glandular, purple hairs.

tree branch with textured green leaves and white flowers

Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

microscopic view of white flower

Clockwise from top: hypantium, sepal, stigma, and petal | Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

bush with branches containing textured leaves and white flowers

Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

Distribution 2,7,89

Winter current is native to southwestern California, from San Luis Obispo south into northern Baja California, generally below 4000 feet (1300 m). It is a plant of the chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats but seems to prefer slightly more shady areas or areas with a bit of extra moisture such as canyons and washes, creek sides and north or east-facing slopes.290

In the Reserve, a single plant grows near the upper Holmwood Canyon trailhead, between the trail and the access lane. It is not known whether there are winter currents elsewhere in the Reserve or whether that single plant was planted.

Classification 2,11,44,59

Winter current is a dicot angiosperm in the genus Ribes, which is currently the only genus in the small Gooseberry family (Grossulariaceae). Previously, Ribes was considered a genus in the larger saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae). Species in this genus are shrubs characterized by the development of a hypanthium and by sepals that are often colorful and may be more showy than the petals. The fruits of Ribes species are berries.

Plants with prickly berries are called gooseberries; those with smooth-skinned berries are called currants. Berries of both groups are familiar ingredients in jams, jellies and pies.

Winter current was previously considered to be a variety of chaparral current (R. malvaceum), which has larger, pink flowers and notably sticky leaves.

The only other species of this genus reported from the Reserve is the showy fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (R. speciosum).48

Alternate Scientific Names:

Ribes malvaceum

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
tree branches with green spotted leaves and white flowers

Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

small white flower with green leaves

Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

yellow berry on branch

Immature berry | Holmwood Canyon | March 2010

Ecology  

Most chaparral plants are evergreen.174 A major exception to this rule are the currents and gooseberries (Ribes spp.) This is thought to reflect ancestral relationships in habitats with cold winters. Our Ribes in southern California presently lose their leaves early and produce new leaves in midwinter, suggesting they are slowly evolving away from the winter-deciduous pattern. Winter current is the extreme case. It may be leafed-out and blooming as early Christmas. The related fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (R. speciosum) blooms in January.

Some ornithologists believe that our currents and gooseberries have co-evolved with the Anna’s Hummingbird.27,59 The plants provide winter nectar that allows the Anna’s to breed far earlier than other hummingbirds. At the same time, the hummingbirds pollinate the currents and gooseberries during a time when many pollinators are scarce.

close up of leaf hairs

Underside of leaf | Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

textured green leaves on branches with a bee on one of the leaves

Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

textured green leaves and white flowers

Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

Human Uses  

The fruits of currents and gooseberries were eaten raw or cooked by a wide range of Indian tribes,15,75,282 although often the reports do not give exact species names. The only use specified for winter current was medicinal: the Luisaño, of the Riverside area, are reported to have applied the roots as a remedy for a toothache.17

Winter current is popular in the horticultural trade. It is a hardy plant, a prolific bloomer and the nectar attracts hummingbirds and native bees while the fruit attracts a variety of hungry songbirds.59,169,290

bush with white flower and textured green leaves

Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

textured green leaves with tiny white flowers

Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

close up of mini white flowers on end of tree branch

Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

Interesting Facts  

The species name of winter current, indecorum, comes from the Latin word and seems to refer to the small flowers that “lack decoration” rather any impropriety on the part of the plant.21

The history and future of this little shrub in the Reserve are mysteries. At present, we know of no other winter currents here. A specimen of this plant was collected in 1992 by Susan Walker, long-time Supervising Ranger at San Elijo.467 This plant then is at least 25 years old. Susan thinks that at one time there may have been several winter currents along the little roadway. Were they planted? by whom and why?  What became of the others? Were they removed during subsequent fire-suppression activities? How much longer will this single winter current persist, as it becomes increasingly crowded out by the Torrey pines around it. Has it – will it – produce any seedlings?

close up of tiny white flower under microscope

Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

tiny white flowers and textured green leaves on branch

Holmwood Canyon | December 2009

large bush on trail

Holmwood Canyon | December 2018

Photo Gallery