An erect, thicket-forming shrub to 1 m tall. Shoot grey, with short curved hairs; older bark shredding. Buds acute, to 2 mm long, with ciliate and puberulent scales. Leaves thin in texture, ovate to orbicular and sometimes with big lobes on suckers and long extension-growths, 10–30 × 8–25 mm; base rounded, tip acute or rounded, occasionally apiculate; soon glabrous above but hairy at least under the veins; margin ciliate; petiole 2–3 mm, sparsely hairy. Flowers opening May–September, 1–5 together in axils of the upper leaves; bracts lanceolate, bractlets deltoid, scarcely ciliate; calyx irregularly 5-toothed; corolla pink, bell-shaped, 5–6 mm long, lobes obtuse, 2–3 mm long, densely woolly inside; stamens slightly shorter than corolla; style glabrous, 2–3 mm. Fruits 1 or 2 in axils, pendent from branchlets, white, 6–10 mm wide; nutlets more or less smooth, 4–5 × 2.5–3.5 mm. (Jones 1940).
Distribution Canada Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan. United States Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Wyoming.
Habitat As an understorey in mixed woodlands.
USDA Hardiness Zone 3
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
The common Snowberry is a familiar woodland plant across the eastern and north-eastern parts of North America. Native tribes fashioned arrows from its thin, hard twigs, and used the fruit (which contain toxic saponins) to incapacitate fish and also as a kind of soap (Plants for a Future 2021). Its little pink flowers, which open over a long period, are an important nectar source for pollinating insects, especially bees. The brilliant white fruit hang on the bare twigs into mid-winter, when they begin to provide a food-source for overwintering birds, while many nesting birds and hibernating animals utilise the dense twiggy tangle which this plant naturally forms.
Symphoricarpos albus subsp. albus will have been one of the first members of its genus to be seen by European settlers, and is an easy plant to raise from seed or from cuttings and to establish in European gardens. However, the snowberry described from the garden of Eltham Palace by Dillenius in the 1730s was the purple-fruited S. orbiculatus, while more recently subsp. albus has been almost entirely replaced as a garden plant, at least in the UK and Ireland, by the more vigorous and larger-fruited western subsp. laevigatus (q.v.), which is better adapted to an oceanic climate. Although only one UK nursery (Buckingham Nursery) specifies subsp. laevigatus in its current catalogue (Royal Horticultural Society 2020), all the examples of S. albus grown and naturalised in north-western Europe are here assumed to belong to subsp. laevigatus, along with all the named selections; the same even seems true for forms such as ‘Tilden Park’ which may now be planted in the areas of North America where subsp. albus is native.
Symphoricarpos racemosus var. laevigatus Fern.
Symphoricarpos rivularis Suksdorf
Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus (Fern.) Blake
A vigorous, thicket-forming shrub to 3 tall. Shoot grey, glabrous; mature bark scarcely shredding; buds glabrous. Leaves ovate, 20–30 × 7–15 mm, more or less acute at the base, acute or rounded at the tip; glabrescent but sometimes ciliate; scarcely paler beneath. Flowers often carried in short (10–25 mm) racemes; bracts and bractlets glabrous; calyx glabrous, teeth triangular, acute, 0.5 mm long; corolla 5–7 mm long long, rosy pink to white, strongly vetricose on the lower side, whitish-hairy inside; lobes equally tube, 2–2.5 mm, obtuse. Style glabrous, 2 mm long, shorter than corolla tube. Fruit white, clustered, to 15(–18) mm wide; nutlets 4–6 × 3–3.5 mm. (Jones 1940).
RHS Hardiness Rating: H7
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Taxonomic note Throughout this account of Symphoricarpos, the nomenclature generally followed is that which is recommended by Plants of the World Online (Plants of the World Online 2021). The only taxon accepted by that resource as a variety rather than a full species is S. albus var. laevigatus (Fern.) Blake. Considering the number of features which readily distinguish this form, and its more or less disjunct distribution, a subspecific rank, first proposed by the Swedish botanist Eric Hultén in 1968, seems more appropriate.
Subsp. laevigatus replaces S. albus subsp. albus in, and to the west of, the Rocky Mountains and is distinct in its size and vigour, its almost glabrous foliage, its racemose flowers and its larger fruit which often form small, tight clusters. (G. Neville Jones, in his 1940 monograph on Symphoricarpos (Jones 1940), recommended specific status for this taxon, as S. rivularis Suks., but few contemporary botanists agree with his assessment; genetic analyses do not yet seem to have cast light on this issue.)
This was an early introduction from western North America, arriving in Europe in 1817. It quickly became popular in the UK as a tough, easy-to-grow garden shrub, and also in the wider countryside as a cover for game birds. Even in dense shade it spreads slowly via suckers and layering, and can also be bird-sown, though European birds tend to ignore the fruit until late in winter. It now grows almost throughout the UK and Ireland (including the Orkney Islands and the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides) and reaches an elevation of 385 m in County Durham (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora 2021). It is also naturalised in adjacent parts of north west Europe, including in southern Scandinavia, and in comparable maritime climates in New South Wales, Australia (Plantnet 2021) and in New Zealand (New Zealand Plant Conservation Network 2021). In the UK and Ireland at least, the plant spreads so steadily, often in places too dark or dry for any native shrubs to exploit, that it is yet to be considered a significant ecological threat. As it is no longer much used in gardens, many people assume it is a UK native plant.
The association with straggling roadside hedgelines and other dark, neglected places has certainly come to detract from the Common Snowberry’s popularity, especially now that a small cluster of bright white spheres hanging from a bush in winter can generally be assumed to be a fragment of expanded polystyrene. Once planted, however, a Snowberry is likely to persist indefinitely. A good garden soil and some care and attention is needed to encourage really profuse fruiting (Bean 1981).
Symphoricarpos albus subsp. laevigatus BRIGHT FANTASY™
Bred in Holland for the cut-flower industry and patented by Jack Boot in 2001, BRIGHT FANTASY™ is sometimes treated as part of the Doorenbos Group of cultivars, but derives entirely from Symphoricarpos albus (Hoffman 2012), presumably in its subsp. laevigatus. Its white fruit, to 13 mm wide, is carried abundantly and ripens as early as August, but Hoffman (Hoffman 2012) considers the plant too thin and straggly to be a good garden shrub.
A selection named in the UK to honour the pioneering English flower-arranger Constance Spry, who died in 1960; this is however a garden plant, rather than a florist’s selection, chosen for its relatively dense and compact habit (Hoffman 2012).
A dwarf, ground-cover form selected by the (California Flora Nursery). Its habit, and its mountain origin, suggest that it could possibly derive from the wild population which is distinguished in this account as Symphoricarpos acutus (q.v.).
Symphoricarpos albus subsp. laevigatus 'Variegatus'
Symphoricarpos albus subsp. laevigatus f. variegatus Nash
Symphoricarpos albus subsp. laevigatus 'Taff's Variegated'
A slow-growing sport with white-margined leaves (Dirr 2009), named after the English photographer and garden writer Stephen Taffler, who had a special fondness for variegated plants; an example grows in the Denver Botanic Garden in Colorado (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2021). Some confusion surrounds this clone: Laurence Hatch (Hatch 2021–2022) suggests that it arose as a sport from a pre-existant ‘Variegatus’, while Hoffman (Hoffman 2012) describes ‘Taff’s Variegated’ as a sport of Symphoricarpos albus with a yellow variegation (and as such distinct from the plant described in this account as S. orbiculatus ‘Taff’s Silver Edge’).
Selected at the Tilden Regional Park Botanical Garden in California by Roy Tilden (Calscape.org 2021), ‘Tilden Park’ is now widely sold across the United States. It forms a relatively low plant with abundant white fruit (California Flora Nursery 2021).
A selection named by Simeon Doorenbos in Holland in 1953 from plants collected in western Canada by the Swedish botanist Göte Turesson, and grown by him at Uppsala (Hoffman 2012). It forms a low shrub with straggling and drooping branches and curiously elongated fruit (Hoffman 2012). Atypically for S. albus, the fruit can also be pink-flushed, especially when the plant is under stress (Hoffman 2012).
Like ‘Turesson’, ‘Ultuna’ probably derived from seed of Symphoricarpos albus subsp. laevigatus collected in western Canada by Göte Turesson, and is named after the Ultuna campus of the Swedish Agricultural College at which Turesson taught (Hoffman 2012). It grows vigorously in the Scandinavian climate.