Categories

Want to know when I write?

Upcoming Talks

Oct
3
Tue
8:15 pm Basic Genealogy and Family History
Basic Genealogy and Family History
Oct 3 @ 8:15 pm – 10:15 pm
This 8-week evening course is on Tuesdays from October 3 to November 21. The course is designed for those just beginning to research or looking to upgrade basic research skills. The course will cover terminology,[...]
Oct
28
Sat
10:00 am Oakville Family History Fair
Oakville Family History Fair
Oct 28 @ 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
OAKVILLE’S FIRST ANNUAL FAMILY HISTORY FAIR 10:00am to 4:00pm At 2:30pm, I will speak on: City and Rural Directories for Family History Research. Directories are a major source for family historians, particularly in North America.[...]
website security

The Neglected Gooseberry

It is the middle of July, and in Ontario that means just about everything is ripe. Saturday morning at the market there were flats of perfect strawberries, early raspberries, glossy red, black and yellow cherries, translucent red currants, and tucked away on just a couple of farmer’s tables, a few pints of unassuming green gooseberries.

Gooseberries in pressed paper pint container.

Tiny green gooseberries at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, July 2014. Photo ©Jane E MacNamara

Unloved, or just forgotten? Certainly out of fashion.[1]

It wasn’t so for our ancestors. There are gooseberries native to Ontario. Catharine Parr Traill, who settled near Lakefield, mentions wild gooseberries in several of her books, and describes three varieties—wild smooth, thornberry or prickly, and small swamp gooseberry—in her 1885 Studies of Plant Life in Canada. In the 1857 Canadian Settler’s Guide (7th edition), she advises transplanting some wild varieties to a cool shady spot in the garden.

In his 1873, Toronto of Old: Collections and Recollections, Henry Scadding remembers dense thickets of “wild gooseberry bushes and wild black-currant bushes” in the lower Don Valley. In a Toronto horticultural exhibition described in the Globe in July 1849, Mr. Turner won first place for his gooseberries.[2]

Gooseberries were an essential part of a northern household garden. Like currants (a close relative), gooseberries are very high in natural pectin, the ingredient that thickens jam and jelly. They could be mixed with fruit like strawberries or rhubarb which won’t set on their own. They could also be the featured ingredient in gooseberry jam or a tangy relish to eat with meat.

But back to the meager offerings of gooseberries this weekend at the market. There were two varieties, both un-named as far as the growers could tell me. The bushes had been fending for themselves for as long as they could remember.

Pint basket of gooseberries beside a pint of currants.

Larger, bulbous green gooseberries and red currants at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto in July 2014. Photo ©Jane E MacNamara

But that was certainly not the case in 1876, when the Ontario government sent displays of the province’s products to the “Centennial Exposition” in Philadelphia celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

One of the displays was the “Fruits of Ontario.” This was, apparently a massive exhibit, occupying 200 feet of table space.[3] Secretary of the Fruit Growers’ Association of Ontario D.W. Beadle wrote a fascinating report[4] about how the samples were gathered and the quantities involved—well worth a read if your ancestor was a fruit grower. Beadle’s closing words explain that the aim of the exhibit was to “dissipate a very prevalent impression that we dwell in a cold, frozen, most inhospitable region of snow and ice”. He felt that the effort had done more to “break down unfounded prejudices” then could have been done by “an army of Emigration Agents, or a whole circulating library of books of information on the climate and productions of Ontario.”

Part of this impressive 1876 exhibit, were samples of 25 varieties of gooseberries!

VARIETY GROWER(S)
American Seedling Wm. Saunders of London
Arnold’s Seedling Charles Arnold of Paris
Black Naples P.E. Buck of Ottawa, J. McMullen of Ottawa
Downing Allen Moyer of Indian Station, Charles Arnold of Paris, P.E. Buck of Ottawa, Wm. Saunders of London,
Early Red R. Kettlewell of London
Early Yellow John Arnold of Paris
English D. Arnott of Arva, H. Beltz of London
Hart’s Seedling Charles Arnold of Paris
Houghton’s Allen Moyer of Indian Station, P.E. Buck of Ottawa, Wm. Saunders of London, M. Kelly of London
Hybrid Wm. Saunders of London
Phoenix John Carnie of Paris
Ploughboy J. Lamb of London
Read’s Canada W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Gem W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Pear-shaped W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Purple W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Yellow W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Roaring Lion R. Kettlewell of London
Sulphur Yellow J. McMullen of Ottawa
Warrington R. Kettlewell of London, J. McMullen of Ottawa
White Smooth John Carnie of Paris, J. McMullen of Ottawa
Whitesmith R. Kettlewell of London, J. Lamb of London
Wild Prickly Wm. Saunders of London
Wild Smooth Wm. Saunders of London
Yellow Jacket Charles Arnold of Paris

Mr. Beadle noted that the summer of 1876 had been particularly hot and dry. This had damaged or diminished crops in some part of the province—accounting for the dominance of places like London on the gooseberry list.

So what happened to all this diversity of gooseberries[5] in Ontario? Why did their popularity wane? Was it a change in culinary styles? Did another fruit or product take their place?

Do some of these varieties survive on family farms? Does a descendant of grower R. Kettlewell of London still have some Roaring Lion bushes?


[1] Well maybe they’re not completely out of fashion. Martha Stewart grows gooseberries on her farm and you’ll find several recipes on her web site. Be wary that she’s not referring to “cape” gooseberries with a papery covering, which in Ontario we’d call ground cherries.

[2] The Globe, 21 July 1849, page 4.

[3] Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture (Chairman of the Advisory Board of Ontario,) on the Products, Manufacturers, etc., of Ontario, exhibited at the International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Sessional Papers No. 33. Legislative Assembly: Toronto, 1877. (The Google Book version starts on digital page 187.)

[4] Beadle’s report to the Commissioner of Agriculture starts on page 85.

[5] Charles Darwin wrote about the varieties of gooseberries developed in England by examining lists published in horticultural show catalogues from 1573. He credits the close to 300 varieties and increase in berry size to the existence of a network of “fanciers” from the late 1700s that held many annual gooseberry shows. Darwin himself grew some 54 varieties of gooseberry. The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 2nd edition, Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton, 1876. pages 376–378

2 comments to The Neglected Gooseberry

  • Joan Beckley

    I once picked gooseberries, thinking I would make some jam for my mother. I gave a blood donation doing it (thorns you know!) I boiled the berries forever, made the jam, toted it out to Winnipeg, only to find out that it was my GRANDMOTHER who had liked the jam, not my mother! Never again!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>