Master Gardener: Native shrub for the wildlife garden — mountain snowberry
June 12, 2018
A number of native shrubs have bloomed spectacularly this spring: the fragrant chokecherry trailing blossoms, serviceberry bursts of blooms and mountain ash flat-topped flower clusters. But it is the little mountain snowberry that catches my eye this time of the year.
Mountain snowberry (Symphoricarpos oreophilus) is one of a variety of snowberries and is native to our area. A small deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family, it grows 1 to 5 feet tall and is currently blooming under the shrubs and aspens along our trails, as well as out in the undisturbed meadows. The flowers are not showy and consist of clusters of small light pink bells at the ends of branches. In the fall, it produces clusters of showy white berries that when broken open, reveals fruit that looks like "fine, sparkling granular snow."
Mountain snowberry is a wonderful addition to the wildlife garden. The shrub is attractive with an arching growth habit and small rounded leaves. It attracts pollinators — bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds — and is a host and a food plant. It also provides food and shelter to birds and small mammals, as well as early spring forage for deer and elk. Rated for United States Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 to 7, it thrives in all types of soils, and once established, is drought tolerant.
Mountain snowberry, however, might not be right for your garden. One garden website warns that it may not be the most beautiful or best behaved shrub because it spreads via rhizomes and may be thicket-forming without regular pruning. It also is prone to disease if growth is too dense and, while the berries are beneficial to wildlife, they are toxic to humans. Ingesting more than a couple of berries may cause vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and sedation. Last, like many natives, it may be hard to find at a nursery.
Colorado State University Extension has a great publication that is helpful to gardeners interested in planting native shrubs called "Native Shrubs for Colorado Landscapes" at http://extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/garden/07422.pdf. It includes tips for planting and advice for all steps of the process, including purchasing the shrubs from commercial nurseries. It explains why one should not collect them from the wild — the practice reduces biodiversity and encourages weeds — and touches on issues around finding native plants for purchase.
In fact, I've have found it difficult to purchase some native plants locally. Deciding mountain snowberry would be an appropriate addition to my wildlife garden, I purchased and planted snowberry shrubs a couple of years back. Unfortunately, I did not order them by their Latin name (Symphoricarpos oreophilus), so I am not sure what I received. Per Karen Vail's Garden notes in "Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Southern Rockies," “There is a dizzying variety of snowberries available in nurseries, unfortunately most of them misnamed."
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Are my shrubs the native mountain snowberry? If not, are they wildlife friendly? Are they thriving? Are they pretty? They don't look quite like the native shrubs in my neighborhood: arching growth habit, small oval leaves and spring flowers. My shrubs are more robust and have larger odd shaped leaves, but they are thriving and attractive. They are also wildlife friendly as they have leafed out early and shelter birds. They have not yet bloomed so may not provide food for wildlife. Perhaps they will bloom later this season as they are in a shadier spot. I will wait and see and, in the meantime, will enjoy the pretty green shrubs that are drought tolerant and maintenance free.
Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.