Gooseberries are close relatives of the currant, Ribes spp., and have a fruit that’s edible when it’s ripe. Both the American gooseberry, Ribes hirtellum, and the European gooseberry, Ribes grossularia, grow in areas with cool, humid summers that chill adequately in the winter. All gooseberry plants have thorns to some degree, but none have been reported as poisonous.
Gooseberry Plant Basics
Gooseberry shrubs are deciduous plants that grow to about 3 feet tall and spread to as much as 6 feet wide. They begin to get new growth early in the spring, with leaves popping out long before the other plants in the area. Plants under stress may not leaf out well, but if the stress is caused by drought they may recover and leaf out if they get enough water before the roots die. Fruits develop later in the year and often drop to the ground when they’re ripe. You may eat gooseberries raw or made into desserts, jam or other foods.
About Gooseberry Thorns
European-type gooseberry bushes typically have a single thorn at each axil, the place on the plant where the leaf meets the stem. American gooseberry shrubs have two or more thorns at every axil, creating a much denser and pricklier environment. Even though they can scratch or poke you, gooseberry thorns aren’t poisonous, though it can feel that way if you get poked in a joint. Tiny bits of plant matter can end up lodged in the hole and cause swelling, pain and a condition known as plant thorn arthritis -- or plant thorn synovitis -- that may be mistaken for poisoning and requires medical treatment.
Benefits of Gooseberry Thorns
The thorns on gooseberry bushes discourage cattle and other large animals from grazing on these shrubs. Large grazing animals, such as mule deer, may occasionally eat them, but in general they will avoid gooseberry shrubs in favor of other foods. The thorns also make these bushes inhospitable to coyotes and other predators, creating an excellent place for mice and birds to make their homes. Rabbits, too, find a haven in gooseberry bushes and will seek out safety under the prickly branches.
Gooseberries thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 through 8. They do well in full sun but will die if the air or soil temperature goes over 85 degrees. Their shallow root system makes them vulnerable to drought and they do best if the soil is kept moist but not waterlogged all season. Prune branches on established bushes to reduce the number of thorns and make it easier to harvest the fruit. Check local laws before planting since gooseberries are prohibited in some parts of the country, as they carry white pine blister rust, which kills five-needle pines.