Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) of the Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle) Family occurs in the U.S. from Texas to South Dakota and Minnesota, eastward to central New England and southward, though it is infrequent to absent throughout much of the East Gulf Coastal and Southern Atlantic Coastal Plains. In Arkansas it occurs primarily in the northwestern half of the state in the Interior Highlands, with widely scattered occurrences in the West Gulf Coastal and Mississippi Alluvial Plains. Habitats include moist (but well-drained) to dry woodland openings and borders in partial to full sun, in loamy to sandy soils. Other common names for coralberry include “Indian currant” as well as “buckbrush” and “devil’s shoelaces” (the latter two names are also applied to other, unrelated species). The name of the genus is derived from Greek, meaning “closely grouped fruit”. Coralberry is the only species in the genus occurring in Arkansas.
Coralberry is a deciduous shrub two to four feet tall with arching branches and several main stems. It can eventually form a rounded, much-branched habit, especially if open-grown in ample light and with little crowding from other plants. Young branches in the spring are spindly, brownish green and variably hairy. With age, though, the branches develop exfoliating bark. Mature branches and main stems are rough and scaly. Although coralberry’s leaves are opposite, the previous years’ branches are not noticeably opposite since branches only grow from nodes facing sunlight. This growth pattern gives the shrub its arching appearance, accented too by the current year’s long, weaker branches which droop loosely.
Photo 1: Spring growth of an open-grown coralberry plant in a garden setting. Note a few of the previous year’s berries still remaining on the bush.
Photo 2: Segments of coralberry stems of various ages. Leaves and fruits occur on the youngest twigs. Young to medium-aged branches tend to exfoliate. Older stems and branches are rough and scaly.
Once a coralberry plant is established, it produces runners from the base of its main stems which grow horizontally in or just above the duff (leaf litter) layer. New plants form at ends of the runners and, occasionally, along the runners. Runners, from 1′ to 8′ long, become woody and remain connected to the parent plant even after new offset plants are firmly established. Dense clonal thickets of these runners and offset plants can form, wherein a person can be easily tripped (hence one of the common names, devil’s shoelaces, in reference to the runners).
Coralberry’s opposite, entire leaves, up to 2″ long and 1¼” wide, are oval to elliptic with turned-down margins and pinnate venation. The leaves, on ¼” petioles, have a medium green upper surface and light green lower surface. Upper leaf surfaces are hairless to slightly hairy while lower surfaces are slightly hairy to very hairy. Leaf tips and bases taper equally. Some leaves persist on the stems into winter, even after freezes.
Photo 3: Coralberry inflorescence clusters growing from leaf axils on current year’s twigs. Note flower buds (white arrow), calyces (red arrow) and developing ovaries/fruits (yellow arrow). Also note pinnate leaf venation.
Sessile, densely spaced, bell-shaped flowers occur in short spikes in leaf axils on current year’s new branches. The flowers are light green to rosy tinged. The ¼” long flowers have a short five-lobed tubular corolla, five stamens, a short green calyx with five teeth, and an inferior, pale green ovary. Flowers develop and mature simultaneously all around the shrub. Many flowers on a spike do not develop into full-size fruits, but are still retained on the spike.
Fruit development occurs over several months, with fruit maturing in late fall as plump, rounded to oddly shaped, ¼” purplish red berry-like drupes (stone fruits). Maturing fruit clusters consist of tightly packed drupes that surround the leaf bases. The fruit pulp is whitish and rather dry, with two small, tan stones per fruit, each slightly convex on one side. Fruit may be retained on the plant well into the following spring.
Photo 4: Mature, fully-developed fruits of coralberry along with some “berries” that have not fully developed.
Coralberry, which is shallow-rooted, can be managed as a single specimen shrub in a garden setting by frequently pruning runners. Along with its attractive, rounded, compact growth habit, its winter-long purplish red fruit provides a nice visual accent in the otherwise drab season. For naturalizing in a woodland understory or for erosion control, it can be allowed to send out runners and form colonies. The flowers attract bees, wasps and flies. Clearwing moth larvae will eat coralberry leaves. Leaves may be eaten by deer (thus another common name: buckbrush) and fruit may be eaten by various birds, but it apparently is not necessarily a preferred food choice for either. Coralberry colonies are used by near-ground-nesting birds and by small mammals for cover.
Photo 5: A well-fruited coralberry shrub growing in a garden setting. Runners have been removed.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl