“It is a time of challenge to the imagination of the floral arranger to find suitable native plant material for use in the church altar. … A number of trees and shrubs common to countryside and gardens bear distinctive fruits which persist throughout the winter months. … Coral berry, bittersweet and possumhaw are winter vines and shrubs whose colorful berries can be arranged attractively for display on the altar.”
This quotation is taken from Native and Garden Plants for the Church Altar by Lex Danson and Kathleen Milby, first published by AuthorHouse in 2009. The names of the plants referred to by the authors and the spelling of ‘colorful’ reveal that their natural habitat is to the west of the Atlantic Ocean and, gentle reader, you may not be surprised to learn that home territory for authors and plants is Oklahoma … the city of Norman in the case of the authors. And my curiosity is aroused by the plants to which they refer, starting with coral berry or coralberry … sometimes the name is written as two words, sometimes as one … which has a plenitude of other common names - Indian currant, snapberry, buckleberry, wolfberry, waxberry and turkey bush. Botanically, coralberry is the shrub Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, a member of the Caprifoliaceae family native to the central United States and up the east coast from Florida to New England. The book includes the words ‘native and garden’ in its title but, in truth, not many American gardeners cultivate this shrub, which is generally regarded as a weed in its native areas. It thrives in the shade of stands of trees, preferring the clay and loam soils to be found there and spreading to form ground cover which chokes out less aggressive plants. However, a thicket of coralberry makes an excellent home for many rodents, small animals and birds and its flowers are frequented by butterflies and moths. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) describes Symphoricarpos orbiculatus as: “A bushy deciduous shrub with dark green, ovate leaves and small white or pinkish flowers in late summer, followed by dark purplish fruit.”
The colour of the fruit is, obviously, the reason for the most common of the plant’s common names and the reason for the plant’s inclusion in the suggestions for altar decoration during Epiphany – the weeks between Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday … 46 days before Easter Sunday … which is, in the Christian calendar, the beginning of Lent. And the reason for another of Symphoricarpos orbiculatus’s common names … Indian currant … is that these berries contain mildly poisonous saponin which, as well as being toxic, has soothing properties which is why coralberries were harvested by Native Americans and used as a treatment for eye pain. This saponin is the plant’s natural defence against its berries being eaten, for the toxin causes stomach upsets if the berries are eaten in moderation and are potentially fatal if they are eaten in large quantities. Fruit-eating animals and birds, which share with mankind an inbuilt sense of harmful foods, quickly learn to avoid these berries. The indigenous people also used the dried roots of Symphoricarpos orbiculatus to stun fish and make them easier to catch.
Coralberry has been recorded in cultivation in the United States as far back as 1727, being grown for its greenish white to pink blooms in the summer and its colourful berries during the autumn and winter months. But, as I have said, it is not much grown by American gardeners nowadays and, although I can see no good reason why it would not thrive in the U.K., it is rarely grown here. So the Scottish altar decorator will need to find an alternative.