Prickly Gooseberry
Ribes cynosbati
Gooseberry family (Grossulariaceae)

Description: This woody shrub is about 2-4' tall, branching occasionally. Young branches are green, while older branches are grey or brown. They have two kinds of thorns: long thorns about " long that occur in groups of 1-3 near the petioles of the leaves (or where the petioles used to be located), and shorter thorns about " or less that are abundant on major branches, but fewer in number or absent on smaller branches. These thorns are straight and brown to reddish brown. The leaves occur alternately along the branches in groups of 1-3. Each leaf is up to 2" long and across; it is palmately lobed and crenate along the margins. There are usually 3-5 major lobes per leaf, and several lesser lobes; they are cleft and taper to blunt tips. The upper surface of each leaf is slightly pubescent to hairless, while the lower surface is pubescent to slightly pubescent. Each leaf is cordate (indented) at the base where the petiole joins the blade. The petioles are usually hairy and up to 1" long. Flowers are produced in groups of 1-3 near the petioles of some leaves; the inflorescence is either a branched cyme or a short raceme, from which the flowers droop downward. The slender pedicels of the flowers are green and pubescent or slightly hairy.

Each flower is about 1/3" (8 mm.) long and greenish yellow; it consists of short tubular calyx with 4-5 spreading lobes, a similar number of stamens, and a prickly or bristly ovary underneath. The short lobes are oblong to oval in shape, while the stamens extend no farther than the tubular calyx (they are not exerted). The petals are smaller than the calyx lobes and insignificant. The blooming period occurs during late spring and lasts about 2 weeks. Each fertilized flower develops into a globoid berry about 1/3" (8 mm.) across or a little larger. Immature berries are shiny and green, but they later become dull red or dull purple. All berries have conspicuous prickles. The berries are juicy and contain several minute seeds. The root system is branching and woody.

Cultivation: The preference is partial sun, mesic to dry conditions, and loamy or rocky soil. In excessive shade, flowers and fruit may fail to develop. Gooseberries and currants (Ribes spp.) are alternate hosts to White Pine Blister rust.

Range & Habitat: The native Prickly Gooseberry occurs occasionally in central and northern Illinois, while in the southern part of the state it is uncommon or absent (see Distribution Map). Habitats include thin rocky woodlands, wooded slopes, woodland borders, and limestone bluffs. Some disturbance is beneficial to this species if it reduces the overhead tree canopy.

Faunal Associations: The flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, Large Carpenter bees, Andrenid bees, Syrphid flies, and various ants; most of these visitors suck nectar from the flowers, although Andrenid bees also collect pollen. The bees are more effective pollinators than either flies or ants. The caterpillars of the butterflies Polygonia faunus (Green Comma) and Polygonia progne (Gray Comma) feed on the foliage of Ribes spp. (Gooseberries, Currants). The Insect Table lists additional insects that feed on gooseberries and currants. Some songbirds eat the fruit, including the Catbird, Robin, Brown Thrasher, and Cedar Waxwing. Various mammals eat the fruit as well, including the Red Fox, Raccoon, Striped Skunk, Red Squirrel, Deer Mouse, and White-Footed Mouse. These animals help to distribute the seeds to new locations. To some extent, White-Tailed Deer browse on the branches and leaves, notwithstanding the presence of thorns.

Photographic Location: A rocky bluff with oak trees in Vermilion County, Illinois. In the photograph of leafy branches, there is some evidence of browsing by deer.

Comments: The most striking feature of this shrub is its prickly berries. It is unclear what advantage this provides in comparison to berries without prickles. Other species of plants produce prickly fruits as well – e.g., some Opuntia spp. (Prickly Pear Cacti) have prickly fruits that are offered for sale in grocery stores. In addition to its prickly berries, Prickly Gooseberry can be distinguished from other Ribes spp. (Gooseberries) by the inserted stamens of its flowers and leaves with indented bases (cordate). Other Gooseberries in Illinois have non-prickly berries, flowers with exerted stamens, and leaf bases that are truncate, rounded (obtuse), or less indented. Those Ribes spp. that are Currants have larger clusters of flowers/berries (5 or more). Prickly Gooseberry is more common in areas that are located to the north and east of Illinois.