Monday, August 25, 2014

Rocky Mountain Edible Plant Identification: Wild Wax Currant (Ribes Cereum)

Wax Currant, also known as Squaw Currant, is one of the most common edible plants in the Rocky Mountains in late Summer and early Fall. Wax Currants literally blanket the Rockies from as low as the Foothills to as high as the Montane Zone. In fact, they are so common that the average hiker simply overlooks them while trekking along forest trails.

Wax Currant bushes off a trail near Mary's Lake in Estes Park, Colorado:

(click to enlarge)

Currant bushes growing next to an old, abandoned mine off a National Forest trail in Western Boulder County, Colorado:

Multiple Wax Currants growing on the side of a highway in the Arapaho National Forest:

Wax Currants produce edible berries between late July and early September. Their berries have a mild, lightly sweet flavor and can be eaten straight from the bush, cooked, or made into pies and jellies due to their high pectin content. Wax Currants were also used by the Native Americans to make Pemmican. The young leaves of Wax Currant bushes are also edible. 

Although not particularly high in calories, the Wax Currants' pleasant flavor and abundant supply can give you an all important energy boost when you're lost and hungry. They also make a great addition to oatmeal, cereal, or your favorite trail dessert. One of my favorite ways to eat Wax Currants is to pick a handful and throw them into my morning oatmeal breakfast. The boiling water brings out the rich pectin which adds a fresh, lightly sweet flavor - yum!

NOTE: It has been reported in several edible plant identification books, and by some Native American tribes, that eating too many wax currants can cause nausea. I have eaten quite a few wax currants without issue, but results may vary. You might want to moderate how many you eat until you know how your body will respond to them.

How to Identify Wax Currant

For the unfamiliar, Wax Currants look like a common, scrubby bush with little value. The easiest way to identify them is by their distinctive leaves and scrubby, bushy appearance:

Closeup up the bark:

The leaves are reminiscent of the edible plant Mallow, but are much smaller, usually not more than 1-2 inches wide.

Wax Currants range from as small as a foot high to as tall as seven to eight feet, with most being between two and five feet. When you smell Wax Currant leaves, they have a distinctive, pleasant smell as if you were walking through a fruit farm. 


Wax Currant berries range in color from light orange-red to crimson red:

To the untrained eye, Wax Currant berries can be a bit hard to see at first, because they are small and tend to be concealed behind the leaves. Once you know what a Wax Currant bush looks like, it's just a matter of walking up and looking behind the leaves to find their juicy berries.

Wilderness Survival Tip: Wild Currant thickets are also a good place to catch dinner. Birds and small game like to hide under the natural cover. Simply set a trap or flush the game out and try your skills with a throwing stick.

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, and the author of Edible & Medicinal Survival Plants of the Rocky Mountains Pocket Guides. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)

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