Snowberry ~ The Name Says It Best
Native shrubs can greatly benefit your home landscape. One that you may not know is snowberry. It provides nice dark green foliage spring through fall and white flowers tinged with pink in the spring. The real show is the waxy-white berries that give this bush its name and provide food for many species of game birds from fall into winter.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Many gardeners love seeing wild birds almost as much as they enjoy flowers. We put up feeders of all kinds hoping to attract them to our little piece of Eden. Why stuff a feeder when your shrubs will provide food and beauty at the same time? The fruit, or berries, of the native snowberry, also known as ice apple, Symphoricarpus albus, is enjoyed by pheasant, grouse, quail and other birds as well. Of course, the shrub will also provide winter shelter for wildlife and come spring, a nesting area for smaller birds.
Unfortunately, snowberry is poisonous to human beings. It contains the alkaloid chelidonine, which causes gastrointestinal problems and dizziness if eaten. The Canadian government, in its Poisonous Plants Information System, states that "the risk of severe poisoning does not appear great because of vomiting that occurs after ingesting." The plant can also cause dermatitis. So this may not be a choice for those of you with small children.
According to the USDA, the native common snowberry is endangered in Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland (threatened), Massachusetts and presumed eradicated entirely in Ohio. As with all wild plants, you should be very careful to determine if that plant is protected before collecting any plant material.
Symphoricarpos is a member of the Honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae. This genus of plants is known collectively as snowberry. S. albus (alba), common snowberry, is native to the eastern half of the United States. A species native to the U.S. West is S. occidentalis, or wolfberry. There are many species and sub-species; mountain snowberry (S. oreophilus var. utahensis), creeping snowberry (S. mollis) and the pink-berried varieties (S. orbiculatus) which are known as coralberry. You may want to look online or at your local nursery for these as well as some named cultivars, even a few with variegated foliage. Heights range from 2 to 6 feet. Most are rated from zone 4 though 7 and some may be hardy to zone 2 or 3.
Coralberry (S. orbiculatus)
Another group of plants often referred to as snowberry are some of the Gaultherias from New Zealand; snowberry (Gaultheria hispida), mountain snowberry (G. depressa), scarlet snowberry (G. crassa), tall snowberry (G. rupestris) and northern snowberry (G. colensoi) among others. These plants are hardy from zone 7 to 9 and are unrelated to Symphoricarpos. You may know one of their cousins, a U.S. native, Gaultheria procumbens, or wintergreen. Photo at right is of Gaultheria hispida.
The western snowberry does have a bit of interesting history. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, catalogued it in 1804 and even recognized it as a honeysuckle relative. Seeds were saved and sent to Philadelphia to a horticulturist named Bernard McMahon. In 1812, McMahon sent cuttings to Thomas Jefferson, who planted them in his garden. The cuttings thrived at Monticello and Jefferson wrote back to McMahon in October that they had "some of the most beautiful berries I have ever seen." The following year, Jefferson forwarded cuttings to a friend in Paris. So snowberry bushes travelled half-way 'round the world on the basis of the pretty berries.
Western snowberry, S. occidentalis Common snowberry, S. alba
If you would like to grow snowberry in your home garden, ForestFarm has an excellent selection online. (I have no proprietary interest in this nursery, I just found a large variety of plants there and I have ordered from them before.) You can search PlantScout here at Dave's Garden or ask at your favorite local nursery for other sources.
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Special thanks to the following DG members for the excellent photographs (top to bottom, left to right); Kell, frostweed, MartyJo, growin, kennedyh, Todd_Boland, arsenic
 Canadian Government Biodiversity Control, Poisonous Plants Information System, 2006-05-30
 USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Symphoricarpos albus (L.) Blake common snowberry.
 USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 3: 276.
 Discovering Lewis & Clark , "Common Snowberry", Joseph Mussulman, 06/04