An erect shrub to 2 m tall. Shoots light brown to purplish, variably densely pubescent; older bark grey, shredding. Leaves ovate to orbicular, 1–6 cm long, rounded to acute at the base, thick in texture and matt above with impressed veins; pubescent and slightly glaucous beneath with prominent veins; petiole 2–4 mm long; autumn colour dark red. Flowers June–September, in densely crowded short axillary spikes; calyx-teeth 5, triangular, ciliate; corolla broadly campanulate, pinkish or yellowish white, hairy within, 3–4 mm long, turned obliquely upwards and slightly ventricose on the lower side, lobes as long as the tube; anthers 1 mm long, shorter than the filaments; style 2 mm long, hairy; fruit pink to red to purplish with a glaucous bloom, ellipsoid, 5–7 × 4–5 mm; nutlets oval, 2.5–3.5 × 2 mm. (Jones 1940; Bean 1981).
Distribution Mexico In the north-east of the country. United States Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia.
Habitat Woodlands, wood-pasture and riverbanks, in loose dry sandy soils but also over limestone.
USDA Hardiness Zone 2
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
The Coralberry was probably the first member of its genus to be cultivated in Europe, and was described from the garden of Eltham Palace – now in south-east London – by Dillenius in 1732 (Bean 1981); its genes contribute to the red and pink fruit of Symphoricarpos × chenaultii and parts of the Doorenbos Group, though the species itself is little grown today and, in the climate of the UK, needs a hot summer to fruit spectacularly (Bean 1981). Even in the wild, the fruit tends to be left by birds and lasts until midwinter (Jones 1940). Atypically for this genus, the quite large leaves turn dark red in autumn (Jones 1940), and the colour is long-lasting. In cultivation it is susceptible to mildew (Dirr 2009).
As a wild plant this is the only Symphoricarpus native to the American Deep South, but it also perhaps the hardiest species. It is particularly common in Post Oak (Quercus stellata) woodlands (wildflower.org 2021), where it can establish large colonies, but is ‘almost a weed’ over limestone in south-western Virginia (Dirr 2009). It is naturalised, from long use in gardens, in areas of New England north of the natural limit of its range (Jones 1940). It has also been reported to naturalise in England since 1974 (Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora 2021), though self-sown bushes are more likely to belong to the widely grown S. × chenaultii.
In the UK the species itself is probably only now available from seed, but a few of its cultivars remain in cultivation.
A selection made by Rick Crown from a plant growing on Central Avenue, Madison, Georgia (USA), with drooping branches and abundant burgundy-red fruit. It was available in the United States from 2001 (Hatch 2021–2022).
A white-fruited sport, with greenish-yellow flowers, once sold by Darwin Andrews’ Rockmont Nursery in Boulder, Colorado (Dirr 2009).
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus 'Bowles' Golden Variegated'
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus 'Variegatus'
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus 'Aureovariegatus'
Leaves smaller than in the type, bordered unevenly with yellow; a good variegated shrub, available in the UK by 1837. It is inclined to revert if grown in too much shade (Bean 1981). In the bright sun of the south-eastern United States the variegation can fade to cream (Dirr 2009). It is still a widely cultivated form, and appears in the catalogue of ELTE Botanical Garden in Budapest (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2021).
A compact selection, no more than a metre tall, with coral-red fruit; it was sold in the United States by 1998 (Hatch 2021–2022).
A selection made by H.J. Albrecht in Berlin in 1984 (Hoffman 2012). Hoffman describes purplish-red berries only 3 mm wide, but this may be a misprint.
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus 'Albovariegatus'
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus 'Argenteovariegatus'
A sport whose leaves are irregularly margined with white (Dirr 2009), named after the late photographer and garden writer Stephen Taffler, who had a special fondness for variegated plants. This clone arose in England but probably represents the same mutation as the following: