Red currant is a shrub of shady forests and alder thickets in Denali, producing strings of red berries in fall. Plants grow 60-90 cm tall, sometimes rooting at nodes. Stems do not have prickles, and the bark sheds in strips. Leaves are alternate, shallowly three- or five-lobed, the margins toothed. An inflorescence consists of six to fifteen small red-greenish flowers in pendant racemes. The calyx is five lobed, overshadowing the inconspicuous petals, the whole flower 6-10 mm wide and shallowly cup-shaped. Flowers are bisexual; the five white anthers alternate with the pinkish petals, surrounding two joined carpels. The pedicels are dotted with white glands, with a bract at the base. Pedicels are jointed, and persist on the stem after the fruits have fallen. Fruits are translucent bright red berries, lacking any hairs. The Latin epithet 'triste' means 'sad'—referring to the 'weeping' flower clusters. Other less common currants in the flora include Ribes hudsonianum, which has glandular hairs on the lower leaf surface and black fruits, and R. glandulosum, which lacks shedding bark and has red berries covered in glandular hairs.
Red currant is perennial and deciduous. It flowers in early summer.
This species is monoecious with bisexual flowers. Flowers of red currant are nectar producing and insect-pollinated. Wild species of Ribes examined in England and the western United States were all self-incompatible, but no studies on R. triste have been initiated (Offord et al. 1944; Arasu 1970). The berries are eaten by birds and mammals, and seeds remain viable in the soil for several years (Ulev 2006). Plants can spread clonally, and can be propagated by cuttings.
This species is a secondary host of the non-native invasive white pine blister rust fungus (Cronartium ribicola) that is causing widespread mortality of 5-needle pines in the US and Canada (Ulev 2006).
Red currants are eaten by people throughout its range, and both wild specimens and cultivars are propagated as berry plants and ornamental shrubs. Species of the currant and gooseberry genus are ubiquitous components of the underbrush and forest margins in Alaska's woodlands. The bark was used by Native peoples to make tea or chewed for respiratory illnesses, a tonic for general sickness, and as a wash or in a poultice for eye problems (Garibaldi 1999).
Red currant is an amphi-Beringian species with a boreal-montane distribution, which occurs in northern North America and northeast Asia. It ranges from Alaska southwards to the Great Lakes and Oregon, east to New England reaching southward as far as in West Virginia (where it is rare). In Alaska, this species grows from the northern edge of the Brooks Range, through interior boreal lowlands to Southwest Alaska, southcentral and northern southeast Alaska. In Denali, R. triste is widely distributed, occurring in boreal regions on both sides of the Alaska Range.
Red currant grows from 89 to 1025 m in Denali, it is most likely to be found at 700-900 m. This species is primarily found on lower slopes (average 10 degrees incline) and has a moderate preference for southern aspects.