Snowberries make the dreariest days of winter brighter

  • By Sharon Wootton / For the Herald
  • Friday, December 17, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I called it the popcorn plant for years before I heard its name – snowberry – because from a distance the upright plant’s plump white berries reminded me of balls of popcorn.

No accounting for some people’s associations, is there?

On the bookshelf

Children and nature are natural companions, and sisters Jane Drake and Ann Love, and artist Mark Thurman, use that to great advantage in “Snow Amazing: Cool Facts and Warm Tales” ($19.95, Tundra).

They use science, legends, art, photography, anecdotes and more to deliver the world of snow in an enjoyable format to children ages 9 to 12.

Will 2005 be the year you turn your biking dreams into action? “Cycle Racing: How to Train, Race and Win” ($19.95, Firefly) covers road racing, time trials, mountain-bike racing, track racing and cyclo-cross.

Photographs, illustrations, charts and graphs reinforce his points, delivered in a no-nonsense style.

The title is “The Encyclopedia of Tracks and Scats” ($24.95, Lyons) but the 428-page book is much more.

Yes, there are track illustrations for animals but Len McDougall adds information on range, habitat, physical characteristics, diet, mating habits, and behavior, too. There’s good information here, although stronger illustrations would have helped.

For me, snowberries say winter. Fall has given up any pretenses of lingering, and the bright fruits are perched on dark branches whose leaves have added their energies to the earth’s recycling project.

Solstice is around the corner, but snowberries will brighten even the shortest day of the year.

Of course, one snowberry would be too simple. Think common snowberry, Western snowberry, mountain snowberry and creeping snowberry, to name a few, all in the honeysuckle family and differing most notably in height, with the common snowberry sometimes reaching 6 or 8 feet.

In 1805, Meriwether Lewis described a snowberry: “leaf like the small honeysuckle of the Missouri (Western snowberry) only rather larger and bears a globular berry as large as a garden pea and as white as wax.”

Works for me.

The adaptable, drought-tolerant, fast-growing snowberries are found in open woods and slopes, often along ditches, sometimes in thickets, at low to middle elevations.

Snowberries have oval-shaped simple and opposite deciduous leaves, pink-white bell-shaped flowers, with the fruits usually in tight clusters that last far into winter.

Also called waxberry, the grayish-brown bark of older stems sometimes splits lengthwise, although I’ve never found out why.

Snowberries attract birds in the winter, including grouse, towhees and purple finches.

According to Betty Derig and Margaret Fuller, authors of “Wild Berries of the West” (Mountain Press), several Northwest tribes believed that the berries had spirit power. The white color led to calling them ghost berries, or the “salmonberries of the land of the dead.”

Although the stems, leaves, roots and berries are mildly toxic, some tribes used an infusion of twigs and berries to reduce fevers. Others made a green dye from the leaves.

I’ve also heard that the leaves may be rubbed with wet hands to produce a soapy lather, but that experiment is still on my to-do list.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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