Sandy’s Garden ... Itchy Berry

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I sometimes wonder about the circumstances which bring long-forgotten memories to the fore.

For example, when a recollection of an incident that took place many years ago suddenly comes to mind. Why, recently, did I remember an incident in a St. Johnstone-Hearts match 45-plus years ago when the Hearts centre-forward … Donald Ford, I seem to recall … and the Saints’ goalkeeper collided in a mutual arm-flailing attempt to connect with a corner kick and both crashed to the turf as a result of the exchanged punches, giving the referee a pretty dilemma as to who punched whom? (I have no recollection whatsoever of his decision.) Or why, just the other day, did itchy berries suddenly some to mind? I suspect that, if you are of a similar generation to me, you may also have long-disused memories of itchy berries, the white or pale pink berries plucked from shrubs bordering the pavement in some well-known gardens in the autumn and early winter months to be thrust down inside the collars of school shirts or blouses, there to justify their common name as the victim’s skin reacted to the juices.

ah, happy days - apart, of course, when one was the victim of one’s friends’ jokes, fidgeting in class to the teacher’s annoyance and instruction, “Oh, do sit still, Simpson!” But, although this memory came to mind, I have no idea why or, for that matter, why itchy berries are hardly ever seen in gardens today, for the shrubs from which these tormenting berries come seem to have gone out of fashion. Another common name for itchy berries is based on their colour for, after schooldays were past, we learned to call them ‘snowberries’; and later still I learned that their botanical name is symphoricarpos, a name conjured up from two Greek words - symphorein meaning ‘bearing together’ and karpos meaning ‘a fruit’, because the berries hang in clusters throughout the later months of the year.

Symphoricarpos is a deciduous shrub … meaning a bush that sheds its leaves during the winter months … which is in the same family of plants as honeysuckle. It comes originally from North America and has many advantages as a garden plant. It thrives in almost any type of soil, from heavy clay to fairly sandy ground; it is equally happy in full sun or in partial shade; it grows to a very manageable 1.5 metres … say, 5 feet in old money … in height and to a similar spread; it grows quite quickly; it is fully hardy and survives a typical Scottish winter with ease; and it is an easy plant to grow, meaning that almost anyone will be successful with it. It’s grown … where it is still found … as a shrub to brighten up the autumn border for, although the small, pink flowers that appear in the summer are not unattractive, they are small to the point of insignificance: but the fleshy berries are still to be seen long after all the leaves have gone and add interest to the garden at a time of year when most plants are dull and unexciting.

It used to be called itchy berry; and I learn from the internet that, “It contains viburnin, chelidonine, saponins, tannins, terpenes, tryglycerides and coumarins. It is a gastrointestinal irritant capable of causing vomiting, bloody urine and delirium but its emetic effect is so strong that the berries are usually expelled undigested.” Charming! However, the white or pale pink colour of the berries seems to make them unattractive as food both the people and to animals; and I read that they also have an unpleasant taste, further discouraging their consumption. Their whiteness has led to them being called ‘corpseberry’ and described as a food for wandering ghosts. And, to my surprise, I learn that our ancestors used to rub the berries on the skin to cure sores or burns, though I do wonder whether the promise of intolerable itching resulted in the problem becoming so minor that no medicine was needed!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society