Erect or spreading thicket-forming shrub to 1.5 m. Shoot glabrous; older bark brown, shredding. Bud hidden in leaf by the base of the petiole. Leaf ovate, 10–25 × 8–16 mm, thick in texture, glabrous or with scattered hairs beneath, scarcely paler beneath; tip more or less acute, base tapered, margin sometimes dentate or with oak-like lobing. Flowers in axillary pairs, or in few-flowered terminal spikes; bracts ovate, acute, glabrous, 1 mm long; calyx glabrous, the lobes deltoid; corolla pink, tubular, 11–13 mm long, symmetrical, with lobes 2–3 mm long, slightly spreading, tube sparsely hairy to nearly glabrous inside, with 5 small basal nectaries; anthers 2 mm, as long as the filaments; style glabrous, 3 mm. Fruit white, 8–10 mm wide; nutlets flattened lanceolate, 5–6 × 2–2.5 mm. (Jones 1940).
Distribution Canada British Columbia Mexico Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora. United States Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming.
Habitat Open subalpine forests, dry mountainsides, sagebrush.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note Symphoricarpos oreophilus is regarded as a synonym of S. rotundifolius by Plants of the World Online (Plants of the World Online 2021), following Allred (Allred 2012), but both are considered good species by Bell (Bell 2009) and by other American authorities. Genetic analysis by Bell (Bell 2010) seemed to endorse this position.
As understood here, Symphoricarpos oreophilus is the commonest and most widespread of the low, thicket-forming species from the Rocky Mountains, differing from S. rotundifolius in being largely glabrous; the long, flattened nutlets are also distinctive. It is one of the first plants in these habitats to leaf out in spring, and in autumn the foliage turns yellow; the rather small white fruit tends to hang on the plant until midwinter (Wikipedia 2021).
Although none of this group of snowberries are important as garden plants, S. oreophilus seems to be the only one to have been cultivated in the UK. It was introduced in 1898 (Bean 1981) and was planted at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in 2016 (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2021). It is very much at home at the Betty Ford Alpine Garden at 2500 m asl in Vail, Colorado (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2021), and (as ‘S. vaccinioides’) is commercially available in the United States from (Las Pilitas Nursery).