Brighten Solstice with Snowberries
December 20, 2022
It was on one of those dim, fogged mornings when the remaining leaves on the trees appear to yearn for the ground, heavy like newly washed hair, limbs blurred with mist, the lines of them made more distant, remote, out-of-reach, and the grasses and tall perennials on the ground slump, arch, and fold, long leaves an offering of hand-me-downs to the decomposers and soil dwellers, connecting to a hidden world below the realm of their flowering. Persimmon leaves mound on the patio, fountain gamely burbles, the garden’s predominant color this late in the year: brown, it’s texture: sodden veering towards slime. I stepped gingerly in my garden clogs, cautious of the slippery interface between leaf, rainwater, and stone patio, when a brightness tugged at my attention, something freshly white shining through the gloom.
The Willamette Valley is not known for winter white, snow rarely falls. And yet, still, white is the color of the season, the color that brings gladness and cheer. The white of snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) reigns this month throughout grand woodland gardens, wild forests, and small shady beds like my own. Popcorn clusters of snow perch and bobble on thinnest stems, chubby berries for winter decor. Snowberries may be ubiquitous, common, overly abundant and so, ignored, but not if you pay attention, not if you appreciate the gifts of nature, the wild offerings of cheer for the holidays. The longest night of the year brings starlight to the shade in the form of berries. Winter Solstice is dark so that we can better appreciate small orbs of white, like hope, like joy, and simple beauty.
Noticing the heartening effect of white snowberries in my garden, I see again and again, other white beauties shining through the gloom: the near-white of lichen-covered treetops; white frost tracing the heart-shape of cottonwood leaf margins, frost furring the veins; white mushroom umbrella sheltering fallen leaves; white waves of slender ‘Frosted Curls’ sedge; speckles of white illuminating evergreen Pulmonaria leaves; white patched bark of alder and fig; a single pure white great egret meditating at water’s edge; my white dog happy to be out in it all; and me in white Gore-tex rejoicing at her side.
The advice for winter garden interest is dominated by evergreens: conifers and camellias, hellebores and ferns. Under a lidded sky the heaviness of these classics weighs darker still. Brighten with snowberries. Every garden has room for some—shade plant, drought tolerant, native habitat-maker. Just don’t place them in the darkest corner, not in a spot without a dapple of summer sun. To flower and then to fruit, a bit of light is necessary. Oh, and the flowers are so sweet: little bells of nectar for hummingbird and bees. And the mitten leaves so fresh blue-green edged plum in spring. Watch the berries hang for months until freezing temperatures mellow them for birds like frost sweetens squash and kale for us. Towhees, robins, thrushes, and waxwings descend to clean every twig for their late winter feast.
Plant snowberries in mass on a slope to hold the ground. Place them to give privacy to a quiet seating area or to screen an ugly shed. Let them grow tall and spread wide with suckers or trim them lower to open a view overtop and dig out their runners as Christmas gifts for friends. Layer snowberries beneath the dry shade of Doug fir. Create a mixed hedge with Oregon grape and osoberry. Accompany them with hardy fuchsia and dress their ankles with wood sorrel and wild ginger.
The morning I stopped in aesthetic arrest to admire the glow of white in my garden gave me a feeling of quiet promise, something easing and shifting as it does after the hoopla of holiday hustle. The white in early winter assures hope, lifts spirits, decorates in celebration, freshens the grays and the browns. And, importantly, to see snowberries sparkling in the winter garden draws us outdoors into the beauty of nature where we remember ourselves as part of it, connected to life in the dark season growing bright again.