Symphoricarpos occidentalis Hook.
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,
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.
Flowering time: June-August.
Fruits: drupes, berry-like, white and waxy, almost round,
mostly 6-9 mm long, persisting through
mostly 3.5 mm long and 2-2.5 mm wide.
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, Medicinal, Toxic plant.
(click on image for full size)
(click on images for full size)
The fruits of western snowberry are edible raw or cooked. The are insipid, and are best if cooked. A famine food, they are only used when all else fails.
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.
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.
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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