Deb Babcock: Leave berries for the wildlife

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— My friend Kathy Vogelaar recently asked me to identify an attractive shrub that grows extensively near her home in the woods along the road to Buffalo Pass. Anyone who hikes in the forest of Routt County has probably seen this plant, which features sturdy, deep green oval leaves and colorful orange-red, bell-shaped flowers with red bracts at the top that become deep red-black berries in fall.

Common names for this shrub are bearberry honeysuckle or black twinberry, and the botanic name is Lonicera involucrata. It’s a shrubby member of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). While the berry isn’t toxic to humans, it is very unpleasant tasting. Native Americans called the shrub “crow food” or “grizzly berries” because they were the only animals willing to eat such a bitter fruit.

This pretty plant, native to California, loves moist areas along streams and will grow in full sun to partial shade in a wide variety of soils. It can attain a height of up to 8 feet. It’s a great hummingbird, bee and butterfly attractor. You can find it at garden centers for use as an ornamental plant.

Another shrub related to L. involucrata is the red twinberry, or Utah honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis.) The berries on this shrub come in twos, are bright red and contain a toxic alkaloid, saponin, which is poisonous to humans but delightful for small birds and rodents.

The pretty twinflower (L. innaea borealis) is another related shrub in the honeysuckle family that often gets mixed up with the twinberry. This plant, which is found in similar areas to the others mentioned above, doesn’t produce berries, though, and the flowers are more numerous and delicate in shades of pink and ivory.

As with all the berries you see in the wild, unless you’re absolutely sure what they are and that they are safe to consume, don’t ingest them.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Routt County Extension Service. Call 970-879-0825.

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