Gooseberries are spiny shrubs, native throughout northern Eurasia, which extend their range into the Caucasus and North Africa. Despite gooseberries probably not being native to Britain they are frequently viewed as typical English summer fruits, with a wide range of savoury and dessert uses. One Victorian garden owner, and gooseberry enthusiast, recommended that 'at least one to two hundred trees should be grown in every private garden'.
Gooseberries are not mentioned by ancient Greek or Roman authors, but first appear in thirteenth-century English horticultural bills of plants imported from the continent. During the sixteenth century, they were widely cultivated in Britain and by 1831 there were more than 700 named cultivars.
In 1868, whilst discussing evidence that the features of plants and animals varied under domestication, Charles Darwin commented on the 'steady increase in the size' of gooseberry fruits. A wild gooseberry fruit weighs about the same as six peanuts. By 1786, the weights of cultivated fruits had doubled; in 1852, gooseberries, weighing the same as a hen's egg, were recorded. This transformation was affected by the activities of gooseberry clubs that were established in northern England during the nineteenth century. Of all the cultivars selected, the most successful competition gooseberry was a red-fruited one called 'London'.
Members of these clubs were not wealthy landowners but workers in the cotton mills, mines and potteries of the emerging industrial economy. These plant breeders competed for prizes of a few shillings, and for kettles, crockery and cutlery. They recorded their successes in The Gooseberry Growers' Register. In 1856, more than 7,500 fruits, representing nearly 300 cultivars, were shown in over 180 competitions.
It is unclear how much weight gain was a consequence of genetics rather than growers' abilities to manipulate the environment. For example, weight could be increased by resting fruit in water, so-called 'suckling the gooseberry'. However, show gooseberries were often dismissed by other growers as tasteless, of 'no particular value for either dessert, cooking, or preserving'.
In Yorkshire, the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show has been running since 1800. Before 1916, about 17 different cultivars, with names such as 'Eagle', 'Conquering Hero' and 'Dan's Mistake', were shown annually. After 1919, only about five cultivars were shown annually. The dramatic decline in cultivar diversity may have been because of World War One and the arrival in Britain of the North American gooseberry mildew, Sphaerotheca mors-uvae; British cultivars were susceptible to the pathogen.
Brennan R 2008. Currants and gooseberries. In: Hancock J (ed) Temperate fruit crop breeding. Springer, pp. 177-196.
Secord A 1994. Science in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire. History of Science 32: 269-315.