Western Snowberry
Symphoricarpos occidentalis Hook.
Family: Caprifoliaceae, Honeysuckle
Genus: Symphoricarpos
Synonyms:
Other names: wolfberry
Nomenclature: occidentalis = of the west
Nativity / Invasiveness: Montana native plant
Edible plant
Medicinal plant
Toxic plant
Description

General: erect, more or less branching shrub 0.3-1 m tall, spreading freely from rhizomes and often forming dense colonies. Young twigs short-hairy or rarely hairless.

Leaves: opposite, on stalks 3-10 mm long. The blades elliptic or ovate, often broadly so, entire or often with a few coarse, blunt, irregular teeth, mostly 2.5-8 cm long and 1.5-5 cm wide, or larger on sterile shoots and then often more lobed, hairless above, usually short-stiff-hairy beneath, at least along the main veins.

Flowers: white to light pink, few to several in short, dense, short-stalked clusters at the ends of the twigs and in the upper leaf axils. Corolla 5-8 mm long, often wider than long, densely hairy within, the 5 lobes spreading, as long as or commonly a little longer than the tube. Stamens projecting, the anthers mostly 1.5-2 mm long and shorter than the filaments. The style elongate, 4-7 mm long, long-hairy near the middle, varying to occasionally hairless. June-August.

Fruits: drupes, berry-like, white and waxy, almost round, mostly 6-9 mm long, persisting through winter. Nutlets mostly 3.5 mm long and 2-2.5 mm wide.


Distribution

Open prairies, and moist low ground along streams or lakes, in most parts of MT. Also from B.C. to Manitoba, extending s. to n. WA, UT, NM, MI and MO.
Edible Uses

The fruits of western snowberry are edible raw or cooked. They are insipid, and are best if cooked. A famine food, they are only used when all else fails.



Medicinal Uses

An infusion of the leaves has been used as a wash for weak and inflamed eyes. An infusion of the root has been used to cleanse the afterbirth and aid in convalescence.



Toxic Properties

The bitter berries are toxic when eaten in quantity. The branches, leaves and roots are also poisonous, causing vomiting and diarrhea if eaten. The fruits of many if not all members of this genus contain saponins. Although toxic, these substances are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also destroyed by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins but it would take extremely large doses of many kilos of fruit from this plant in order to produce toxic symptoms. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc. in order to stupefy or kill the fish.



Other Uses

The plants have extensive root systems and are used to stabilize soils on banks and slopes. The branches can be made into brooms. Very tolerant of trimming, it can be grown as a medium to tall hedge.


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