For many Corvallisites, the holiday season marks the start of much-loved voyages to the snow-capped Cascades. The closest ski areas to Corvallis have all thankfully opened, but snow levels in the region are still much lower than normal, and we have yet to see the white stuff make it to the valley floor. Concurrently with snow dance efforts, many will choose to spend the light hours of these winter days exploring the lower-elevations closer to home. While doing so, this is a great time of year to take notice of some lovely native shrubbery: the snowberry.
Symphoricarpos albus in Latin, snowberries are members of the honeysuckle family. The latter half of their formal name and their common name can be derived from the clusters of white berries that don their branches beginning in Autumn. These berries often stay put on the bush even after all their leaves fall, making them readily visible in the winter months.
Many species of birds and small mammals forage on snowberries, but they are considered inedible to humans, with some caveats. Snowberries contain the chemical saponin, making them bitter and foamy when added to water or watery mouths. Beyond unpleasant taste, saponin can cause some real digestive issues if the berries are eaten raw. But, if thoroughly cooked, snowberries may actually aid in digestive issues, and are utilized in indigenous medicine.
One can easily find snowberry bushes growing in the understories of both conifer and deciduous forests, in the hedgerows of rural roadsides, and even as a feature in more landscaped environments. However, my favorite snowberry spottin’ spot is located in a place I cite often for prime native landscape exploration: Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Try the Mill Hill loop. Much of this trail is canopied by Oregon white oak, letting more sunlight through the branches in these low-light days than evergreens can allow. On the forest floor in this oak section is snowberry bush after snowberry bush—a true delight at each bend of the soft-bottomed single-track.
To end this article on an uncharacteristically glum note, my favorite snowberry spot may currently be inaccessible due to the closure of our grand federal government. Perhaps you, dear reader, will have to take this as an opportunity to go forth and find your own favorite spot, in between bouts of snow dancing, of course.
By Ari Blatt