Buckbrush, or coralberry, grows throughout Missouri. This familiar thicket-forming shrub bears dense clusters of pinkish-red berries that persist through most of the winter.
Buckbrush is a slender, erect or ascending, thicket-forming shrub that spreads by roots, usually 2–4 feet tall. Most of the stems are upright to arching, but some creep almost vinelike along the ground, where they send out runners for several feet and root to form new thickets.
Leaves are simple and opposite, the blades 1½–2 inches long, ½–1½ inches wide, egg-shaped to oval, the tip rounded to blunt, the base rounded or wedge-shaped, the margin entire, sometimes with a few large, rounded teeth; the upper surface is dull green, smooth or slightly hairy; the lower surface is paler, smooth to hairy; the leaf stalk is very short, less than ⅛ inch long, hairy.
Bark is brown, peeling into small, short flakes that are easily rubbed off or shredded into long, thin strips; the wood is soft, nearly white, with a small pith.
Twigs are flexible, slender, and brown; the young twigs have curved white hairs, becoming smooth with age.
Flowers July–August, in clusters of 10–20 flowers at the tip or along the axils of stems; flowers are greenish white, sometimes purplish, about ⅛ inch long, bell-shaped, somewhat hairy within; petals 5, blunt; stamens 5.
Fruits September–October, often prolific, persistent through most of the winter, in dense clusters; the berrylike fruits (technically, drupes) are pinkish red to coral red, globe-shaped, about ¼ inch wide; seeds 2, hard, egg-shaped, flattened on one side, white, smooth. Rarely, you might fine a plant that bears white fruits.
Similar species: Two other snowberry (Symphoricarpos) species have been recorded in Missouri. Also, some people may confuse beautyberries with the snowberries:
- Wolfberry, or western snowberry (S. occidentalis) is uncommon in far northwestern Missouri and occurs in rich upland forests and margins of loess hill prairies; it is also cultivated as an ornamental and border plant. In this species, the fruits are larger, (up to ⅜ inch in diameter) and white or greenish white; also, the first leaves produced by elongating twigs each season often are bluntly toothed to lobed, which is usually not the case with the more common buckbrush.
- White coralberry (S. albus) is sometimes grown in Missouri gardens and might occasionally escape from cultivation. It is native to the northern United States and is not native to Missouri. It bears snow white fruits up to about ½ inch wide.
- If you focus on the clusters of berries, a similar-looking shrub is American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), which is unrelated to buckbrush (beautyberries are in the mint family). It is cultivated statewide as a native landscaping ornamental because of its spectacular, dense clusters of bright violet to magenta berrylike fruits. In nature, it is uncommon in the southeastern part of Missouri, where it grows on ledges and blufftops, openings of upland woods, and bottomland forests. It’s a long-lived plant, but it may die back to the ground during especially harsh Missouri winters.
- In garden stores, you may also see purple beautyberry (C. dichotoma), which also bears dense clusters of berrylike lilac or violet fruits. This plant is native to Asia and has been introduced to our continent. There have been some instances of it escaping from cultivation in Missouri.