How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Coralberry Shrubs
Are you seeking a native shrub that thrives on neglect? Are you eager to add color to your fall and winter garden? Do you love dual-purpose plants that not only provide winter interest but food for wildlife and the ability to be used in cut flower arrangements? Coralberry could be just what you’re looking for. In this article, gardening expert Taylor Sievers sheds light on this lesser-known plant and its uses in the landscape.
Coralberries are lesser-known North American native shrubs that you should consider adding to your landscape! Both the wild and cultivated varieties are relatively easy to grow and thrive in a multitude of conditions.
The berries provide fall and winter interest, but don’t eat them! As a bonus, coralberry stems can level up your fresh-cut flower bouquets in late summer and fall. Want to learn more about this beautiful native shrub? Let’s dive in!
Plant Type Perennial Shrub
Species orbiculatus, x doorenbosii, x chenaultii
Native Area Midwestern and Eastern United States and up to eastern Canada
Exposure Full Sun
Height 2 ft to 5 ft
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests & Diseases Some powdery mildew possible
Soil Type Loamy, rocky preferred; tolerant of many soil types
Hardiness Zone USDA Zones 3-9
What Is It?
The most interesting thing about this member of the honeysuckle family is the berries! I mean, who wouldn’t want to learn more about a shrub that produces berries that Native Americans used to stun fish?
I first encountered coralberry along a forest edge at the base of a limestone bluff near the Mississippi River. It was fall, and the reddish-pink berries appeared virtually untouched. I found it interesting because, most of the time, wildlife likes to nab up berries as quickly as possible.
I knew this shrub wasn’t honeysuckle because the berries were much smaller and tighter, with a dusty pink hue instead of the bright red of honeysuckle.
After some research, I learned that the shrub I had in front of me was coralberry.
I discovered that the berries were untouched by wildlife because they are high in calcium oxalate and saponic glycoside. These chemicals can cause vomiting and diarrhea in humans but do not seem to affect other animals, like birds. Birds occasionally eat the berries, but they are not their first choice. Common bird species that browse on the plant are chickadees, robins, and cardinals.
How and why did the Native Americans reportedly use coralberries to stun fish? The story goes that berries were crushed and poured into water upstream. The chemicals in the berries would temporarily paralyze the fish, causing them to float towards the water’s surface. People would then gather the stunned fish downstream.
Since that fine autumn day of my coralberry discovery, I’ve purchased a cultivar of coralberry from Proven Winners– ‘Proud Berry.’ I’ve enjoyed the large, light pink fruits in my landscaping and fresh-cut flower arrangements!
Coralberry is a dense, suckering shrub that typically matures at between 2 to 4 feet tall with arching branches. It can spread up to 8 feet wide in some areas, although 3 to 6 feet is typical.
Coralberries have pubescent leaves that are opposite in arrangement along the stem. The leaves are typically dull green and oval. Leaves can reach up to 2 inches long but are usually only 1 inch long. The bark on the stems is hairy with a shaggy appearance as the layers of bark flake off.
The white flowers are relatively inconspicuous. The berries are reddish pink to coral and form in the fall in clusters of ¼ inch berries. Cultivated coralberry varieties come in various shades of pink and purple.
Coralberry shrubs are often confused with their relative, honeysuckle. A distinguishing factor between coralberry and honeysuckle in the wild is that coralberry will drop its leaves in the fall before honeysuckle.
Coralberry, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, is a North American native deciduous shrub. This shrub may also be called buckbrush, red snowberry, or Indian currant because of the formation of fleshy, coral-to-purplish berries in the fall. Buckbrush is a popular name because deer are known to browse on it.
You’ll find coralberry in forests and natural areas of bottomland woods in the eastern and central United States. The shrub is low maintenance. Some would even say it thrives on neglect.
Planting coralberry is fairly simple. Keeping this plant in a container is not recommended, as it is a small shrub but still outgrows most containers and is susceptible to root binding. Usually, you will purchase this plant as a dormant bare root or in a 1 to 2-gallon pot from a nursery.
When placing coralberry in the landscape, keep in mind the type you are planting. The cultivated varieties such as ‘Proud Berry’ or ‘Candy’ are more mannerly in their growth habit, whereas the wild variety is known for forming thickets. For this reason, many people plant wild coralberries as a hedge plant or along the edges of the landscape.
To plant your new shrub, remove it from the pot. Ensure that your hole is deep enough so the plant’s crown is even with the soil line. Burying the plant’s crown can harm its overall health as it poses a risk for crown rot.
Backfill with the soil you dug out to make the hole. There is no need to add any amendments or backfill with another material. Firm the soil around the plant and water after planting is complete.
Dormant bare roots are typically shipped in either fall or spring. Bury the plant with the crown at the soil level and water well. You should notice new growth in the spring.
Growing from Seed
Coralberry is not typically grown from seed because it requires a lengthy process to get the seeds to germinate. It is recommended to scarify the seeds (nick the seeds with a knife or rub them against sandpaper to break open or soften the seed coat). After scarification, subject the seeds to 2 cold, moist periods. This period is called cold stratification.
To properly stratify coralberry seeds, place the seeds in a cold, moist area for 60 to 90 days. Afterward, bring the seeds into a warm area of at least 80 degrees F for 60 to 90 days (keep the seeds moist but not soggy). Then, subject the seeds to a second period of cold, moist stratification for 60 to 90 days.
Stratify by placing seeds in a wet paper towel in a sealed plastic baggie in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can store the seeds in a plastic container with moist vermiculite.
If planting the seeds outside, plant them in the fall. Seeds may not always germinate quickly; this species takes up to two years sometimes!
How to Grow
Growing coralberry is fairly simple. Once they are established, the needs of this plant are minimal. These plants are perfect for the gardener who likes a hands-off approach to their landscaping.
Coralberry prefers full sun to partial shade. Although it can grow in shady areas as an understory shrub, it does not prefer this environment.
Cultivated varieties do really well in full sun, but in the wild, they stick to the woodland edges, ditches, and fence lines. This could be because of human interference with natural habitats, however. This is not a plant that likes soil disturbance. It’s very set-it-and-forget-it!
Coralberries in the landscape require a moderate amount of water. In climates of ample rainfall, they can withstand some neglect, but during dry seasons, it is advised to water at the base of the shrub once a week. Mildew can affect coralberries, so try to water in the morning at the base of the plant to avoid water sitting on the leaves for a prolonged period, which harbors disease.
Coralberry is tolerant of most soil types, so if you have an area in your garden or landscaping with poor soil, coralberry may be a great fit. Moist to dry, loamy, or rocky soil is where this shrub usually exists in nature.
Do not amend the soil when planting unless your soil is extremely sandy and won’t hold much moisture. If this is the case, adding organic matter like compost or peat can help increase the water-holding capacity of your soil.
Temperature and Humidity
Coralberries are native to central and eastern North America and have naturalized in many areas even further north. The shrubs seem to perform best in a temperate climate with modest humidity. Too much humidity can cause diseases like powdery mildew.
Overall, this shrub is fairly hardy. Coralberries can be planted in USDA zones 3 to 9.
Like most landscape shrubs, fertilization isn’t as much of a priority as it is for potted plants, annual flowers, or high-blooming shrubs like roses. However, springtime would be a fantastic time to fertilize if you want to.
Adding a fresh layer of compost around the shrub in the spring or fertilizing it with a granular all-purpose fertilizer will give the shrub the boost it needs. Coralberries are extremely tolerant of poor soils, so consider this your shrub to forget about fertilizing if need be.
Pruning shrubs can get confusing! The good news is that coralberries are typically pruned like many other ornamentals.
The best time to prune coralberries is in late winter or early spring. Remove the largest, heaviest canes to the ground (these canes likely have many branches). Also, remove any spindly, small, or weak canes.
If you would like to reduce the height of your shrub at this time, you can also cut the remaining canes down to the desired height.
Do not prune immediately after blooming ceases because you will remove the fall fruit. If you do not care about the berries, pruning after bloom won’t hurt the plant. Leave the canes and fruit in fall to provide winter interest and nourishment for birds.
The best way to propagate coralberry is by cuttings, followed by layering for wild types. It is not suggested to propagate coralberry via seeds because the seeds are extremely hard to germinate. In the wild, coralberries predominantly spread asexually instead of by seeds.
Propagate coralberry with semi-hardwood cuttings. Semi-hardwood cuttings are those taken when the plant stem becomes slightly darker and thicker. Collect these cuttings between mid-July and early fall.
To take a semi-hardwood cutting, ensure your snips are sharp and clean. Select a section of the stem that’s healthy and beginning to thicken and darken, ensuring you have at least 4 to 6 inches of this semi-hardwood section.
Snip off any fresh green growth at the top if the top of the stem is still soft. Cut the remaining leaves in half. Pull the leaves off the bottom 1 to 2 nodes (where the leaves grow from the stem; this is where your new roots will grow).
You can choose to use a rooting hormone or not. If so, dip the end of the stem in the rooting hormone. Use a dibbler (or pencil) to poke a hole in your well-draining, loose potting mix for your cutting. Place the cutting in the hole so the bottom nodes are buried. Press the potting mix firmly around the cutting.
Keep the cutting moist with high humidity for a few weeks. Cover the pot with a plastic milk jug or plastic wrap to keep moisture high. You don’t want the cutting to be soggy wet–just evenly moist. Mist the plant to keep humidity high instead of watering the potting mix in the beginning.
Coralberry propagates itself in the wild by rooting at the nodes where its stems meet the ground. However, the cultivated varieties of coralberry are not as ambitious as the wild coralberry.
If you’d like to propagate wild coralberry via layering, the best time to do so is in the fall or early spring.
If coralberry “suckers” are already present, using a spade, dig out a section of the plant that has rooted and move it to a new location. There is no need to amend the soil. Just make sure there is enough to cover the plant’s crown so none of the roots are above the soil line.
If you do not notice any stems already rooted to the ground, artificially create this by laying a stem along the ground and securing it by mounding soil up around nodes (where the leaves join the stem). Once you see new growth emerging from the soil mound, you can separate these plantlets from the main stem and transplant them accordingly.
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, wild type
The wild coralberry, also called Indian currant or buckbrush, usually reaches about 2 to 4 feet tall but spreads widely via aboveground stolons (ground-hugging stems).
It can become a thicket or tall groundcover quickly, which is why many people use it for bank stabilization or a shrub mass under ornamental trees. The berries form in pinkish-red clusters in the fall. This shrub fruits best in full sun.
Symphoricarpos x chenaultii ‘Hancock’
The dwarf Chenault coralberry ‘Hancock’ is a shorter shrub, reaching 1.5 to 2 feet tall but spreading 6 to 8 feet wide. The blossoms are pink-white, with pink fruit appearing in the fall.
Unlike many other cultivars, the pink fruits more closely resemble the native coralberry, with a reddish hue to the berry. This variety is recommended in xeriscapes and for erosion control because of its rambling, low-maintenance nature. Prune back hard occasionally to keep it maintained.
Amethyst™, Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii ‘Kordes’
Also known as the Doorenbos coralberry, Amethyst™ is a hybrid of snowberry, coralberry, and the Chenault coralberry developed in Germany. The berries are typically white with a flush of pink on the side of the berry exposed to the sun.
This coralberry shrub grows 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. Sometimes, the berries may appear as a deep purple-pink, which is why the name “Amethyst” is used.
Proud Berry®, Symphoricarpos sp. ‘Sofie’
Proud Berry® is an improved version of the ‘Amethyst’ variety released by Proven Winners in years past. Proud Berry® is the most widely popular variety available today in plant nurseries.
The berries are delightfully large and appear as beautiful light pink clusters. This variety reaches about 3 to 4 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.
Candy Coralberry, Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii ‘Kolmcan’
‘Candy’ is a compact shrub, reaching only 2 to 2.5 feet tall and 2.5 to 3 feet wide. It requires full sun and has a compact, arching growth habit. The leaves are oval and bluish-green.
The berries are plump and bright, bubblegum pink, forming in large clusters. ‘Candy,’ released by First Editions, is more suited as a groundcover and front-of-border shrub compared to Proven Winners’ Proud Berry®.
Coralberry’s key problem seems to be that it is underwhelming in the landscape. This is mostly a concern of the native variety, S. orbiculatus. The cultivated varieties of coralberry are much more attractive and are bred to achieve high landscape impact.
Pests and diseases are not a common concern for coralberries, but there are a few to look out for.
Aphids and scale insects can be potential pest problems for coralberry.
Aphids are 1/8th inch long insects ranging in color from green to gray to black. They have piercing, sucking mouthparts that allow them to feed on the sugary sap of the plant. As a result, aphid waste–known as honeydew–is very sugary. The waste spots will typically be translucent until infected with sooty mold fungus that turns them black. These black honeydew spots can be unsightly and reduce photosynthetic activity.
Beyond that, because of how aphids feed, they can readily transmit viruses from plant to plant. They are also quick reproducers.
Aphids are typically found on new, lush growth, like unfolding leaves and stem tips. To mitigate high aphid pressure, spray your plants with a forceful stream of water daily to knock off the aphids. Do this until the insect pressure is reduced.
Beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings will also feed on aphids, so it is good to cultivate garden practices that promote these insects. You can also purchase beneficial insects and release them in your garden.
Scale insects are related to aphids and are also tiny (1/16th to 3/8ths of an inch long). They secrete honeydew and have mouthparts that pierce the plant and suck out the sugary sap. Scales are unique because they grow beneath a waxy covering that often resembles a fish scale (hence the name). The adults are typically sedentary. The females rarely have legs.
Not only can scale be unsightly, but heavy infestations can cause reduced vigor and overall plant decline. Manage light infestations by scraping the scale off with a bristled toothbrush or cotton swab soaked in 70% isopropyl alcohol or soapy water.
Treating with insecticidal soap or horticultural oils can be effective for heavy infestations, although it may take multiple applications. For some severe infestations, plants may need to be destroyed.
Powdery mildew is a common disease that may affect coralberry. This fungus produces a white, powdery film on leaves and stems. Typically, the powdery film starts as spots that spread into large blotches. It is mostly a cosmetic problem, but severe infestations can cause yellowing of the plant and, ultimately, plant death.
A combination of warm weather with high humidity will cause a powdery mildew outbreak.
The best cultural practice to reduce powdery mildew is to ensure adequate spacing between your plants so that airflow is high (this can reduce humidity around your plants). Therefore, it is also important to plant coralberry in full sun in an open area. It will be happiest there.
Another treatment may be effective if you know your coralberry is infected with powdery mildew every year. Combine 1.5 tablespoons of baking soda and three tablespoons of lightweight horticultural oil mixed into one gallon of water. Spray this mixture 7 to 14 days after the buds have begun to grow and until humid weather subsides.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are coralberry berries edible?
Coralberries are not edible for humans. They contain a few different natural chemicals, namely saponins and glycosides. These will cause an upset stomach. Birds, however, are not affected and may sometimes feed on the berries, although coralberry berries are not their first choice.
Is coralberry invasive?
As a North American native, coralberry cannot be categorized as invasive, although the true native species have a potentially aggressive spread habit. In the wild, it can easily form thickets if left without maintenance.
Modern cultivars don’t spread as easily. Most invasive species spread easily via seed. Fortunately, coralberry seed does not germinate readily. The main way contemporary cultivars of coralberry spread is via their stolons (ground-hugging stems that root at nodes).
Does coralberry like sun or shade?
Coralberry prefers full sun. However, it is not uncommon to see coralberry growing along woodland edges or even within open forests. Most of this may be because most open spaces are disturbed heavily by humans and are colonized by species with more of an advantageous spirit (such as coralberry’s close relative, honeysuckle). Coralberries will grow in partial shade as well, but full sun is recommended.
What’s the difference between coralberry and honeysuckle?
Coralberry and honeysuckle are actually related! They both belong to the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae. However, there are some key differences.
First, honeysuckle leaves are often much larger. Both species have opposite leaf structure, but coralberry leaves are typically a darker shade of green, smaller, and have tiny hairs on the leaves. The stems of coralberry have small hairs as well. Coralberry berries are produced in clusters of raspberry red or coral hue, whereas honeysuckle berries are much larger, with only 2 to 4 berries in a juicy cluster of bright red hue. Cultivars of coralberry often have berries in light shades of pink.
Coralberry growth habit is that of a small, arching shrub. Honeysuckle is usually larger and may also have a vining habit, depending on the species. Honeysuckle will also keep its leaves longer in the fall than coralberry.
Coralberries are unique shrubs that are low maintenance, establish easily, and produce beautiful berries in the fall. This North American native would make a great addition to a native plant garden or sloping area of your yard to prevent erosion. If you like plants that provide both beauty and function, consider adding coralberry shrubs to your garden to use the stems loaded with berries in fresh-cut flower bouquets. Give this tough native a shot next season!