Spend any time in the woods on either side of the Cascades, and you will probably encounter our native Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. It’s also becoming a familiar sight in many urban parks and natural areas, as it is an easy-going, carefree native shrub.
In spring it is fairly unassuming with its small, round-to-oval green leaves and sometimes rather twiggy stature. But it catches more attention when it flowers: Though the blossoms are tiny (less than a half-inch) pinkish-white tubes, they are abundant enough during their long bloom period of late spring to late summer to catch the eye of passers-by and hummingbirds alike. But it is in autumn when the plant’s namesake is realized: the stems are covered with stark white berries that persist after leaf drop and make for an especially interesting and attractive shrub in the winter garden.
Birds are attracted to the berries, but it is also true that the Snowberry’s fruit is not their first favorite choice -- so that means the shrub can be an attractive feature in the garden through the winter and also then available food for birds in the leaner times of late winter.
Its tangle of twiggy branches is another feature that makes it a good plant for your bird-attracting garden. Especially when in leaf, it is a perfectly protected hiding place for small birds, as they’re able to maneuver through the branches in spaces too small for predators.
Snowberry can grow in sun or part shade, in moist, dry, even poor soils. Planted on a slope, it can help prevent erosion, spreading by thick underground rhizomes.
There are also native creeping snowberries; the main one west of the Cascades is S. mollis var. hesperius — often used synonymously with S. mollis.
East of the Cascades S. occidentalis (western snowberry or wolfberry) and S. oreophilus (mountain snowberry) are more common.
The creeping snowberries are trailing shrubs with stems three or more feet long, and are able to root from the paired leaf nodes if secured to the ground. Otherwise, their general characteristics are similar to the upright S. albus.
Both forms of snowberry make attractive garden plants, low-maintenance and bird friendly.
(Be aware that there is a minor toxicity to humans associated with Symphoricarpos berries —not at all considered dangerous or deadly, but can cause degrees of stomach upset, so not for snacking by humans)
Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle)
Common Name: Snowberry
Native Range: Forests, shrub thickets, edges and open slopes from sea level to mid-mountain, both sides of the Cascades.
Characteristics: Abundantly branching, deciduous, low twiggy shrubs. Leaves are small and opposite along stem; small pinkish-white flowers are in honeysuckle-like pairs, followed by distinctive white berries that persist through the winter.
A good plant for attracting birds to the garden.
Culture: Tolerant of dry to moist, shade to sun conditions.
Pests/Diseases: Powdery mildew can often be an issue, but good air circulation and avoiding overhead watering can take care of much of the problem.