Snowberry is a native deciduous shrub growing on upright finely branching stems from 3 to 6 feet high.
Twigs are slender and yellow-brown. Bark on older stems is tan to grayish brown, often splitting along the axis of the stem.
The leaves are opposite, simple, generally oval in shape with obtuse ends (bluntly rounded at the tip). Margins are usually without teeth but some leaves may have some very shallow lobes. Margins may be wavy. The underside is usually paler in color.
The inflorescence is a terminal cluster of flowers at the ends of new stem growth.
The flowers are about 1/4 inch long with a bell shaped pinkish-white corolla. The five corolla lobes have obtuse tips but the lobes do not spread, making the flower appear longer than wide. This is unlike Wolfberry where the lobes spread widely. The green elongated calyx has 5 triangular shape lobes that have a purplish tinge. The inside of the corolla is bearded, and has 5 stamens and a style.
Fruit: Fertile flowers produce a round white drupe, about 3/8 inch in diameter, with a waxy surface texture. Like the flowers, these will be in a small cluster, which will last into the winter as birds do not usually eat them in the autumn. Humans will not find them palatable and there is some literature that they may be toxic if eaten in large quantities. Each drupe contains 2 seeds, sometimes 3. With proper storage, seeds are viable for 7 to 10 years. For germination, seeds of the genus Symphoricarpos require scarification plus several storage periods - a cold moist period followed by a warm moist period followed by another cold moist period. Sowed outside in the fall they do not need scarification they will germinate in the 2nd year.
Toxicity - see notes at bottom of page.
Habitat: Snowberry grows best in moist soils of riparian edges, moist openings in woods, in well drained soils with full sunlight to partial shade. It is tolerant of heavy soils. The root system is rhizomatous with elongate horizontal stems just under the soil surface. Disturbances, such as fire, result in many new plants rising from these rhizomes.
Names: The genus Symphoricarpos is from two Greek words - symphorein, to 'bear together' and karpos, meaning 'fruit', thus referring to fruit borne in clusters. The species albus signifies 'white'. The author name for the plant classification, ‘S.F.Blake’ is for Sidney Fay Blake (1892-1959) American botanist at the U S Dept of Agriculture, who published Flora of the World.
Comparisons: There are two other species of Symphoricarpos that have similar characteristics - Coralberry, S. orbiculatus, where the fruit is coral color and appears in small cluster in the leaf axils not at the tip of the twig, the flowers are a bit smaller, but, likewise, do not have spreading lobes; and Wolfberry, S. occidentalis where the fruit is also white, but the leaf is larger and longer and the flower corolla is densely hairy inside and the lobes of the corolla spread widely.
Above: 1st photo - The inflorescence is at the end of a stem. 2nd photo - Flowers mature to a globose white drupe. 3rd photo - The plant is short with much fine branching.
Below: 1st photo - Note the bell shaped pinkish corolla and the long green calyx with purplish pointed lobes. 2nd photo - Seeds are hard, oblong and whitish to light brown.
Below: The leaves are opposite, simple, generally oval in shape with obtuse ends bluntly rounded at the tip
Notes: Snowberry is not indigenous to the Garden but it was one of the first shrubs Eloise Butler introduced. On May 31, 1907 she planted 2 obtained from the area of Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis and another on May 19, 1909 from the same source. In Eloise Butler's day she identified the plant as S. racemosus. That name is now a synonym for S. albus var. albus. She planted another in Oct. 1913 and Martha Crone in April 1934 planted 2 of the variety albus. She also planted others in 1947 and 1948 while developing the Upland Garden.
There are varieties of S. albus: var. albus as explained above and var. laevigatus which lacks the corolla bearding and is not found in Minnesota.
In North America, Snowberry is found in all States of the U.S. except Nevada and Arizona and those of the far south from Texas and Oklahoma east to the coast. In Canada it is absent in Yukon, Nunavut and Labrador. Within Minnesota it is generally absent in the SW quadrant and up to the west metro area. It is present in Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey and Dakota counties. Of the three species of Symphoricarpos noted in the top section of this page, two are native to Minnesota and S. orbiculatus once was and was even on the "special concern" list but it is now considered non-native to the state and has been de-listed as of Aug. 19, 2013.
Lore and uses: In her study of how the Minnesota Chippewa used wild plants, Densmore (Ref.#5) reports that Snowberry was used for two medicinal purposes: First, a decoction of two inches of dried root in a little water was taken internally for pain in the stomach and was said to be quite a strong remedy; second, for stoppage of urine Snowberry was combined with the root of Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) to make a decoction.
In the wild, Snowberry is a browse plant for many mammals plus a cover plant for many small animals and birds, particularly turkeys and grouse. As it has little fall color, the landscape interest is for the pink flowers and white fruit which persist on the branches.
Toxicity: The plants of the genus Symphoricarpos contain toxic saponins. These substances are destroyed by cooking but when eaten raw the chemical is poorly absorbed by humans and most of it passes through. Large quantities would be needed for serious toxic effects. The same cannot be said for some other creatures, such as fish, which are seriously affected by saponins.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"