I recently learned of an unlikely enemy in American history. When it threatened livelihoods in the early 20th century, the government vowed to end its destructive ways. The villain of this story? A three-foot shrub with small, dark berries, known as the blackcurrant (Ribes Nigrum).
Did anyone seriously consider this plant “evil?” Of course not. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) took steps to eradicate the berry for most of the 1900s, and the story is fascinating.
On their own, blackcurrants are harmless. The berries are edible and even rich in vitamins and antioxidants. In fact, blackcurrant is a dominant candy flavor in Europe. Many “purple” flavors in Europe taste like blackcurrant instead of grape. The most notable product is a blackcurrant soft drink called Ribena, which has been a classic refreshment since the late 1930s.
In the northern United States, the climate is particularly suitable for growing blackcurrants. In fact, early in American history, blackcurrant was a well-utilized ingredient in various products. Merchants regularly advertised products like currant jellies alongside those made from grapes or strawberries.
So, what happened?
Efforts to eradicate blackcurrants were part of the quarantine of white pine blister rust, an invasive fungal disease that harms all North American five-needle pines. White pine blister rust first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1900s, when growers imported infected pine seedlings from Europe. White pine blister rust does not transfer from pine to pine on its own. A secondary host is needed for the fungus to complete its lifecycle. The shrubs of the Ribes genus, including Ribes Nigrum, or the European blackcurrant bush, are the perfect middleman.
Cultivated European blackcurrants posed a particular threat to pines because they helped spread disease in areas where Ribes plants would not otherwise be present. Pine was an especially valuable commodity in the timber industry due to its fast growth, and any threat to the resource was a severe concern. In 1927, amid eradication efforts, the USDA’s Yearbook of Agriculture read, “…the United States can do without them better than it can suffer the blister-rust losses.” It was an issue of prioritizing the more profitable crop. The USDA noted that it was “…cooperating with the infected states…” to destroy blackcurrant bushes in high-risk areas.
The Department of Agriculture was first granted the responsibility to prevent the spread of pests by the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 (7 U.S.C. §161). While many are familiar with how this act allows the quarantine of imports at American borders, blister rust prevention efforts fell under the domain of domestic quarantine, or efforts to prevent the spread of disease from locality to locality once it was already on United States soil. To this day, domestic quarantine notices are posted in Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR part 301).
It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when the white pine blister rust quarantine began. While some sources claim a 1911 start date, federal regulations from this era are not widely available. However, mentions of blackcurrant and blister rust became prominent in federal sources throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Federal Register notices from the 1930s reminded users of the prohibition of “current and gooseberry plants” in states affected by blister rust. Scientific articles discussed methods of destroying Ribes plants, widely recommending forms of chemical eradication.
Unfortunately, the timing of the federal blackcurrant restrictions coincided with another wave in history: the rise of the commercial sweets industry. The flavors of early candies and sodas in the United States represented familiar and widely available ingredients. One example of this is lemon and other citrus flavors, which were sourced from the flourishing orchards of Florida and California. One can assume that as these products grew in popularity, these available flavors became the cultural standard.
This paralleled what was happening in Europe, only they had a different relationship with the blackcurrant. More favorable conditions allowed the berry to thrive. Europeans had established better culling practices to weed defective trees out of forests, which helped mitigate the spread of disease. Additionally, the five-needle pine species affected most by white pine blister rust were not native to most areas of Europe, and the areas where the species had been introduced were relatively spread out. Even though cultivated blackcurrants could spread blister rust, they did not impact European forests with the same severity. Europe did not have to prioritize its timber crop over its blackcurrant crops. Thus, it remained a widely available ingredient during the advent of commercially produced sweets in Europe and made its way into their flavor zeitgeist.
In the 1960s, after revised breeding practices allowed resistance to blister rust in the United States, the government revoked all federal regulations aimed at preventing the disease. After that, control was left up to the affected states. In some states, like New Hampshire, the cultivation of blackcurrants remains restricted. Less than a hundred miles away, in New York, farmers resumed cultivation in the early 2000s. This inconsistency could explain why blackcurrants still have not joined the popular ranks of their well-established fruit counterparts more than fifty years after federal growing restrictions ended.
Perhaps in another timeline, little kids would be selling blackcurrant Kool-Aid on the street corner, or trick-or-treaters would excitedly count how many blackcurrant lozenges they had scored by the end of Halloween night. It’s easy to take our unchanging roster of favorite sweets for granted, and many of us never consider how agricultural law has shaped it.
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