This weekend, I took my first-of-the-season road trip through rural New England, a needed respite after a work week in front of the computer. In truth, the trip was prompted by an attempt to circumvent a Rhode Island agricultural regulation. While I wasn’t able to become an outlaw, I did see a lot of beautiful land in northern Connecticut.
In my quest to grow any and every fruit in my garden that doesn’t require the use of pesticides, I’ve been trying to buy gooseberries and currants (aka Ribes). These are native plants that produce delicious fruit rarely seen in commercial trade that would work perfectly in my garden. However, every mail order place I checked won’t sell Ribes species to much of New England, including Rhode Island.
It seems that in the 1920s, federal government issued a quarantine against the importation and cultivation of any Ribes plants because they are alternate hosts of White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR), a non-native fungus that is fatal to North American white pines. The Civilian Conservation Corps undertook an active eradication program of Ribes plants during the Great Depression, which continued into the early 1940s. The federal quarantine for planting of Ribes plants was rescinded in 1966, leaving it up to individual states whether or not to maintain restrictions.
When infecting a white pine, the WPBR fungus finds its way into the cambium (the actively growing part) of the tree, killing the cambium and creating a canker that prevents the flow of nutrients throughout the infected branch, which then dies. Nasty. The fungus requires two hosts to reproduce; a white pine and, most commonly, a currant or gooseberry plant. It uses one plant to incubate spores in “blisters,” which then blast open and infect other plants. The fungus is eventually fatal to the pine tree, but not the Ribes alternate host.
In 2004, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management updated their Suppression of White Pine Blister Rust regulations to protect native white pines. The regulation prohibits the possession, transportation, planting, propagation, or sale of black currants (the most susceptible kind) and limits planting of red and white currants and gooseberries to certain designated low-hazard areas. Barrington is apparently one of these low-hazard areas. RIDEM requires that one submit an application before transporting or planting red or white currant and gooseberries, with a $50 fee.
Now, I’m all for protecting the white pine, even if Rhode Island no longer has a thriving logging industry. I’m even be willing to tell RIDEM that I was planting Ribes plants (if I could get someone to send them to me), but I bristle at the $50 fee. Not that it’s such a steep fee, it just seems high for a bit of paperwork. Now I’m not anti-regulation or tea-partyish - far from it. I actually believe that regulations are necessary because it’s the nature of people to be self-serving and to avoid the rules, when possible. Perhaps it’s the eternal kid in us pushing against parental control, with a quite silly transference of that control to the government. But a permit to plant a fruit bush? C’mon.
So I checked out the regulations of surrounding states. New Hampshire has an approved list of WPBR-resistant Ribes and requires a permit, but doesn’t charge a fee. Similarly, Massachusetts prohibits black currants and limits the planting of other Ribes plants, but also requires a permit. New York regulations are similar. But Connecticut no longer prohibits growing Ribes! No permit!
So, feeling a bit renegade, I set off on Sunday to find a Connecticut nursery that sells currants and gooseberries. And I drove all the way to Canaan, near the New York border, stopping at every nursery I saw along the way, and didn’t find one place that sold them. Not one. So much for my life of crime.
I did, however, get to drive through the beautiful southern Berkshire Mountains and farmland that sits in the valleys. I also found a cool street (see picture) that, despite not being the type to read into things, gave me pause for what I was trying to do.
So where does this leave my new fruit venture? I think nowhere for this growing season. My unsuccessful excursion showed me that I, like most people, try to skirt the regulations when I can. Karma, old regulations, or just bad luck prevented me from scoring my fruit, which, perhaps, is for the best.
Perhaps I should know whether there are any white pines in my neighborhood (there is a suspicious pine-y looking tree in my neighbor’s back yard). Perhaps I should make sure I’m not planting a plant that could wreak havoc. So I guess next season I’ll go through the proper legal channels, get a permit, and regulate myself appropriately. Perhaps the fruit will be a little sweeter if I do.