Symphoricarpos albus (L.) S. F. Blake var. laevigatus (Fernald) S. F. Blake (Caprifoliaceae).
San Francisco Botanical Garden, San Francisco, California
(Da Botany Photo of the Day). A member of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae), Symphoricarpos—which is most commonly known as snowberry—counts about 15 low-branching deciduous shrub species among its ranks. All but one are native to the New World (in this case North and Central America); the single exception, S. sinensis, is, as its name intimates, a native of China. Symphoricarpos species generally bear lobed and rounded green leaves that can grow to 5 cm. in length. Additionally, plants put forth variously arranged dense clusters of nectar-rich, bell-shaped flowers that range from white and pink to green in colour. Lastly, species produce the type of conspicuous—though to humans (mostly) poisonous—waxy, berry-type fruits rendered so beautifully in today’s photo. That the fruits are borne in clusters explains the genus’s name: (from the Greek) symphoreo = to bear together + karpos = fruit.
Symphoricarpos albus var. albus is native to most North America, primarily east of the Rocky Mountains, while the variety laevigatus, which is featured in today’s image, is native to the Pacific slope (i.e., west of the Rockies), where it thrives in the under-story of coniferous forests, particularly in the shaded conditions associated with forest boundaries. Both varieties are rhizomatous—and thus spreading—and tolerant of soil conditions ranging from moist river terraces to rocky slopes and hillsides. Though the berries are somewhat unfriendly to human bodies if ingested (in some cases inducing vomiting, dizziness, or worse), they serve as an important source of sustenance to a number of large forest animals and birds (quail, grouse), and these last operate as the species’ primary means of propagation.
Symphoricarpos albus has a history of cultivation in Europe that extends at least as far back as the initial years of the 19th century. Both the eastern and western varieties are known as the common snowberry. Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus (laevigatus = smooth—referring to the relative paucity of hairs on the stems and leaf undersides of these plants) can grow to about 2 metres in height, which is somewhat larger than its eastern counterpart. Both varieties are common garden ornamentals.