Wolfberry is a native deciduous shrub growing on upright finely branching stems from 1 to 5 feet high.
Twigs are slender and green to reddish-green and usually with fine hair.
The leaves are opposite, simple, generally broadly ovate to elliptic in shape with obtuse ends, bluntly rounded to pointed at the tip. Edges are usually without teeth but some leaves on sterile stems may have some very shallow lobes. Margins can also be wavy and each leaf has a short stalk. Leaves are closely spaced on the stems. The upper side is a blue-green without hair. The underside is usually paler in color and with short stiff hair, at least on the mid-veins.
The inflorescence is a dense terminal cluster of flowers at the ends of new stem growth and also from the leaf axils of the upper leaves on the stem.
The flowers are about 1/4 inch long with a bell shaped corolla that is usually pinkish-white (otherwise white) on the outside and white on the inside. The five lobes of the corolla have obtuse tips and are longer than the base part of the corolla. These lobes spread widely compared to Snowberry, making the flower appear wider than long. The inside of the corolla is densely hairy. The green calyx has 5 triangular shape lobes that partially clasp an enlarged ovary. There are 5 stamens with white filaments and pale yellow anthers, which turn darker at maturity, and a smooth style. Both stamens and style are exerted beyond the corolla lobes.
Fruit: Fertile flowers produce a round white berry-like drupe, about 1/4 to 3/8 inches in diameter, with a waxy surface texture. Like the flowers, these will be in a small cluster, which will last into the winter as birds do not usually eat them in the autumn. Humans will not find them palatable but they are edible raw or cooked, however, there is some literature that they may be toxic if eaten in large quantities. (see notes below) Each drupe contains 2 seeds, sometimes 3. With proper storage, seeds are viable for a number of years.
Toxicity - see notes below.
Habitat: Wolfberry grows from a fibrous root system that has a branching taproot and the root system produces stolons which allow the plant to spread and produce colonies. It can become dense unless you remove some of the shoots. It adapts to many soils with moist to dry conditions. It will flower and produce fruit in partial sun, but full shade will not produce fruit.
Names: The genus Symphoricarpos is from two Greek words - symphorein, to 'bear together' and karpos, meaning 'fruit', thus referring to fruit borne in clusters. The species occidentalis, means 'western', and is used here to differentiate this species from the Common Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. The author name for the plant classification, ‘Hook.’ is for William Hooker, (1785-1865), English Botanist, author, collector, Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow and the first director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. The alternate common name of Western Snowberry is a reference to the similar shape, color and size of the drupe to that of S. albus.
Comparisons: There are two other species of Symphoricarpos that have similar characteristics - Snowberry, S. albus, where the fruit is also white, but the leaves are smaller and has a small flower whose petals do not spread as wide, and is not hairy inside the corolla; and Coralberry, S. orbiculatus where the fruit is coral color but the leaf is smaller like Snowberry and likewise the flower does not have widely spreading lobes, but does have a hairy style.
Above: With many stems and branches, a Wolfberry plant forms its own thicket. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st & 2nd photos - The flower clusters are very dense. Center - The outside of the corolla can have pinkish coloration; note how the lips of the calyx only grasp part of the green ovary. 3rd photo - Fruit matures - these clusters occur at a number of upper leaf axils, not just at the terminal end of the twig.
Below: 1st photo - The corolla lobes spread widely showing a densely hairy inside. Stamens and style are exerted. 2nd photo - Fruit is a waxy round drupe.
Below: Leaf margins are wavy the the upper surface is smooth. The paler underside (2nd photo) has fine hair or at least hair on the main ribs as shown here.
Notes: Wolfberry is considered indigenous to the Garden area; Eloise Butler noted the plant in her log on April 29, 1907; and discovered one in bloom on June 1, 1914. She then planted 3 on Oct. 28 that same year, obtained from the Park Board Nursery at Glenwood Lake (now Wirth Lake at Theodore Wirth Park). Wolfberry is found in most counties of Minnesota with widely scattered exceptions. Of the three species of Symphoricarpos noted in the top section of this page, S. albus and S. occidentalis are native to Minnesota and S. orbiculatus once was and was even on the "special concern" list but it is now considered non-native to the state and has been de-listed as of Aug. 19, 2013.
Wolfberry is found in much of North America - in all the lower Canadian Provinces except the Maritime, and in most of the U.S. except New England, the SE Atlantic and Gulf states and the far Southwest of California, Nevada and Arizona.
Toxicity: The plants of the genus Symphoricarpos contain toxic saponins. These substances are destroyed by cooking but when eaten raw the chemical is poorly absorbed by humans and most of it passes through. Large quantities would be needed for serious toxic effects. The same cannot be said for some other creatures, such as fish, which are seriously affected by saponins.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"