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Winterberries offer a welcome pop of color

I’ve been trying to form a new healthy habit. It isn’t so much a new year resolution, but more a strategy of desperation. In December my family was almost continuously sick — especially my daughter.

I’ve noticed that both she and I have lost a lot of stamina during our protracted bout of colds and assorted viruses. We need to build back up to a healthy state, and we also have a weekend planned in less than two months during which we will be walking a lot and will need our stamina back.

So, despite the cold, we’ve been spending time outdoors and taking a walk every day. While we both complain bitterly about the cold, we’ve enjoyed the extra time outside.

On the day we started this routine my daughter brought back a handful of found things to show her grandparents. One was a small branch with clusters of pink berries.

I’d never seen this type of berry before. The next day, she showed me the shrub from which she’d taken the branch. A few feet wide and high, the bush was covered in these clusters of pink berries.

We continued our walk, and she showed me even more of these bushes, growing along the side of the road. After picking that first branch, when my father drove her home from a trip to Reedsville, she noticed a larger patch of the shrubs along our road.

A quick check with the PictureThis app lead me to identify this plant as Symphoricarpos orbiculatus — common names include coralberry, buckbush, winterberry and Indian current. I read about it on university websites.

If this ID is correct, this is a native shrub in the honeysuckle family. It prefers full to partial sun, and spreads mostly by rhizomes.

It’s a small shrub, growing 2 to 4 feet tall (with gracefully arched slender branches), and 3 to 6 feet wide. It has bright green foliage, which hangs on for a long time in the fall.

The flowers are not very showy; small, green and white — they set berries (technically drupes) that vary from purple, red to coral. The berries are small — quarter-inch — and those on the bushes my kiddo found have some even smaller.

The colorful impact of the berries comes from their quantity and season. The clusters of fruit hug the branches every few inches and hang on into winter. Birds and small mammals eat the fruit, but only in severe winter conditions.

Winterberry is a very pretty ornamental, providing a pop of color in the winter landscape. The fruits are inedible for humans. High in saponins, which make them bitter so they can also cause nausea and other digestive issues if eaten in enough quantity.

I read that indigenous people put the crushed berries into streams, which stunned fish. The fish could then be gathered from the water’s surface.

This bush is also a host plant for the snowberry clearwing moth — a type of hummingbird moth that prefers the Symphoricarpos orbiculatus when in its hornworm stage. The hornworms also feed on other members of the honeysuckle family and dogbane.

As adults, these day-flying moths look like a cross between a bumblebee and a hummingbird. I’ve seen them stop by my garden, and enjoy knowing a little more about their lives.

What a delight to find this new-to-me plant on our winter walks. Despite the cold, I now look forward to daily walks not only for the good physical exercise, but also as a way to learn things I miss in the hubbub of greener months.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email