Coralberry is an introduced erect perennial shrub in Minnesota, growing on woody stems from 1-1/2 to 6-1/2 feet high. The branches are erect to ascending and arching, slender with light brown to purplish bark on young stems and brownish-gray and shreddy on old stems. Young twigs have soft hair.
The leaves are oval or ovate, 1/2 to 2-2/8 inches long, with margins without lobes or teeth, but the margin may be wavy. Both tip and base are of obtuse shape, with a short stalk. The upper surface is a dull blue-green, usually smooth and the lower surface is paler and usually has fine hair, particularly on the veins and the leaf edge. Leaves are opposite and closely spaced on the twigs.
The inflorescence is tight cluster of very small flowers in the axils of some of the leaf pairs - generally toward the tips of the stems.
The flowers have a bell shaped corolla with five lobes, which may be whitish, yellowish or tinged in purple. The calyx is green with five pointed teeth which persist onto the drupes. The reproductive parts include 5 stamens which surround a bearded (hairy) style. Each flower is about 1/4 inch long.
Fruit: Fertile flowers develop into an ovoid to globose berry-like drupe that is pink to coral red (from which comes the common name) to reddish-purple in color, and about 1/4 inch long. The drupes are usually so densely packed that the shape is often flattened. The top end of the drupe has a short beak. Fruit sometimes persists through the winter. It is fleshy but not juicy. Each drupe contains a single stony seed.
Toxicity - see notes below.
Habitat: Coralberry grows from a fibrous root system that has a branching taproot and the root system produces ground level stolons which allow the plant to spread and produce colonies. It can become dense unless you remove some of the shoots. It adapts to many soils with moist to dry conditions. It will flower and produce fruit in partial sun, but full shade will not produce fruit. This is a very late flowering plant in Minnesota - late July in an early year and mid-September in a year with a very late spring - which will limit fruit production. It is not known to have serious insect or fungus problems.
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 orbiculatus, means 'round and flat-disc shaped', which the fruit are. The author name for the plant classification, ‘Moench’ is for Conrad Moench, (1744-1805), German botanist, Professor of Botany at Marburg, author of Methodus Plantas hirti botanici et agri Marburgensis, and who named the genus Echinacea.
Comparisons: There are two other species of Symphoricarpos that have similar characteristics - Snowberry, S. albus, where the fruit is white and the small flower is not hairy inside; and Wolf Berry, S. occidentalis where the fruit is also white, but the leaf is larger and longer and the flower corolla has spreading lobes and is also densely hairy inside.
Above: Clusters of ripe fruit are borne in the leaf axils along the distal ends of the twigs that branch from the main stems. Because of the creeping stolons the plant can form thickets.
Below: The outer corolla can range from white to yellow to tinged with pinkish purple. The lobes do not spread, stamens are just barely exerted beyond the lips. The style is bearded.
Below: 1st photo - Leaf margins are without teeth but can be wavy and can have fine hair . 2nd photo - Leaves have short stalks with a reddish tint where they meet the reddish stem that has fine hair on new sections.
Below: 1st photo - The underside of the leaf is paler in color with fine hair particularly on the veins. 2nd photo - Ground level stolons forming.
Below: The fruit is a beaked, globose coral-red drupe that is so tightly packed in clusters that many are flattened. These clusters, like the flowers, occur in the leaf axils along the new stems.
Below: 1st photo - leaves are closely spaced along the new stems. Old stems (2nd photo) become brownish-gray and shreddy. The root (3rd photo) is fibrous with a branching taproot.
Notes: Coralberry is not indigenous to the Garden but was introduced by Eloise Butler on Sept. 4th, 1909 with plants from Malden MA and again on Apr. 14, 1910 with plants from Jewell's Nursery in Lake City, MN. Then on Oct. 28, 1914 she obtained 3 plants from the Park Board Nursery at Glenwood Lake. Then in May 1920 she received 2 plants from Gillett's Nursery in Southwick MA which she called Symphoricarpos vulgaris. Today that is an unaccepted name and according to the US National Germplasm System it is an old name for S. orbiculatus. Gardener Cary George replanted it in 1989.
It is not considered native to Minnesota but if present it is believed to be introduced from further south where it is native. At one time there was some concern that it was native and the DNR listed it on the "special concern" list, however as of August 19, 2013, it has been de-listed. The DNR provides considerable information on the argument about the native status of this plant in the rare species section of the DNR website, but one concluding remark is that a specimen has never been collected in the wild by any herbarium collector. Of the three species of Symphoricarpos noted in the top section of this page, S. albus and S. occidentalis are native to Minnesota. Coralberry's range is from the central states, south of Minnesota, south to the Gulf and east to the east coast. It is reported in Ontario also.
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.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"