When living in West Sonoma County, I first came across this unusual fruiting native not far from our home. Situated within a flood plain just above the Russian River, this small stand of snowberries thrived in morning sun with an afternoon shade cover from the adjacent willows. The soil was any gardener's dream if it were not for the ever-increasing risk of flood: sandy loam that retained moisture all year round due to the relatively high water table. Despite WUCOLS listing of Symphoricarpos albus as a low water user, consideration should be taken for its dense and healthy appearance with some regular moisture. The Sonoma County specimen at the end of the rural road was a healthy but short thicket that I enjoyed visiting on winter walks to see its gentle illusion of a first snowfall.
Within the past ten years, S. albus has been added to the West Valley College campus. The plantings appear to be a part of a larger effort to restore Vasona Creek, a riparian corridor diagonally bisecting the campus. On its own, the corridor is biodiverse, and the restoration efforts underway appear to support species sustainability while combating invasive plants that had presented challenges, and perhaps still do.
As of writing this post, one thicket of snowberries has taken up residency and is in fact spreading, near the backside of the new baseball field. Here we are in late September, and the plants have already produced their striking berries. If all goes well, the fruit will persist into winter, so I can once again enjoy their winter wonder.
To be clear, these are not edible fruits for humans. Indeed, at least one source identifies them as having low toxicity that could cause illness. We should simply enjoy them for the berries' aesthetic appeal. S. albus has other benefits as well, such as erosion control and native restoration projects. Which is why I just finished planting two in the native section of our home garden, to help the sloping landscape stay in place.
West Valley College Campus Location: Symphoricarpos albus
Batting Cages, east of pathway
Long: 122° 0'42.93"W
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Botanical Name: Symphoricarpos albus
Symphoricarpos: Greek for gathering fruit, or in this case, fruit cluster
Common Name: Common snowberry
Family Name: Caprifoliaceae
Origin: California to Alaska and east primarily in mid to northern states
Positioning: Middle ground
Garden Themes: Native California, pollinator, habitat, winter, woodland edge
Uses: Informal hedge, border, mass, barrier, foundation, slopes, accent
Type: Deciduous shrub
Form: Upright, arching
Size: 2' - 6' tall x spreading
Outstanding Feature(s): Fruit, flower
Stem: Red brown, slightly hairy, turning gray with age and fissured, hollow
Shape: Elliptical, oblong
Margin: Entire to lobed
Color: Dull blue green
Flower: Spring to early summer. White to pink, bell or urn shaped in clusters
Fruit: White drupe maturing in late summer and carried through part of winter
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: A3, 1-11, 14-21
USDA Zones: 3-7
Light: Full Sun to light shade (showy fruit production greater in full sun).
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Low
Texture: Clay, sandy loam
Moisture Retention: Well-drained to heavy
Tolerances: Deer, drought, coastal wind, inundation, poor soils
Branch Strength: Unknown
Insects: No observed insects at time of posting.
Disease: No observed diseases at time of posting.
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Extension Gardener. "Symphoricarpos albus." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on September 23, 2023, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/symphoricarpos-albus/.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on September 23, 2023, from https://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/Download_WUCOLS_IV_List/.
All photos by TELCS.