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.
Unloved, or just forgotten? Certainly out of fashion.
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.
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.
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. Secretary of the Fruit Growers’ Association of Ontario D.W. Beadle wrote a fascinating report 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!
|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 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?
 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.
 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.)
 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