Monthly Columns

Notes from the Apothecary

Notes from the Apothecary: Snowberry


Snowberry, or Symphoricarpos, is the name for 15 or so shrubs that boast gorgeous white berries. The plant is part of the honeysuckle family, and is also known as waxberry or the beautifully evocative name, ghostberry.



The inspiration to write about this plant came from my 13-year-old, who sent me this cute WhatsApp message on his way home (pictured).

It’s lovely to be the “go-to” person for plant info, and nice to be able to give some fast advice on a potentially toxic plant! The interesting thing about snowberries is that, while they can be toxic, they’re also used medicinally in some traditions. But hey, better safe than sorry! Especially when it comes to kids.

The bushes are deciduous, and native to both North and Central America. If you’re lucky, you may see the berries right through winter well into spring; a sign that the local wildlife is well fed.




The Kitchen Garden

Snowberries make lovely garden plants because they are so striking and, as the leaves die down in late autumn, the white berries become even more noticeable. They’re called snowberries because the fruits are almost pure white, and they can be as big as 2cm across; little tiny snowballs. Some birds and small mammals enjoy the fruits, but as mentioned, they can be dangerous to humans and pets. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the berries are also harmful to fish, and may have been used by indigenous peoples as a way to kill many fish at once by poisoning an area of water.

With that in mind, if you have inquisitive kids or animals at home, you may want to reconsider having snowberries in your garden. However, if it’s safe, you get to enjoy a lovely bush that’s rich in pink flowers throughout spring and summer with fat, white berries appearing alongside later in the year.


The Apothecary

The active ingredient in snowberries is saponin. You may recognise this as a key ingredient in soap. That may seem confusing when considering the potential toxicity of these berries, however, you’ve got to consider the fact that you wouldn’t eat soap. Plus, when you don’t rinse soap off your skin properly, it can become very dry and irritated.

Saponins have a number of uses other than making soapy or frothy substances. They have a catalytic effect on the immune system, and some vaccines utilise this ability to make the vaccine more effective.

Mammals and birds can handle saponins much better than cold-blooded creatures, and no one really understands why. However, it’s clear that the berries have been used in various traditions for a variety of medical purposes including skin rashes, sores, tired or painful eyes, urinary issues, fever, or digestive problems.


The Witch’s Kitchen

I love the fact that snowberries seem to be a fruit that can both harm and heal. This highlights how different we all are: what can ease a poorly tummy in one person could cause a nasty stomach upset in another. It showcases the core of herbal medicine, which is that everything must be focused around the individual person and their needs, not just the facts we know about a particular plant.

For magic, this duality could be harnessed to represent two sides of any situation; dark and light, day and night, or just different perspectives. It’s critical to understand that the same fact seen by people of differing experiences may create several different truths.

These stunning white berries can be used for colour magic. Just be aware that the juice from the berries can be an irritant to some, so wash your hands after handling or use gloves. White often represents something that comes from the otherworld, particularly in Irish and Welsh culture. A white animal, for example, may belong to a deity or otherworldly being, or be supernatural itself. It’s a reminder of the connection between this world and others.

In different traditions, white may mean purity, the blank page on which ideas can be formed, energy, light, a focal point, cleansing, healing, both death and life, rebirth, and new beginnings. If you have other meanings for the colour white, please come and share them on our Discord!

Snowberries are also called popping berries or billy busters, which is a reference to children popping them over each other for fun. This association with silliness and glee can be a strong magical anchor if you need to focus on inviting more joy or light-heartedness into your life.

There is anecdotal evidence that snowberries were planted in cemeteries to instil purity, reinforcing that association with death but also rebirth, growth, and protection. Perhaps the name ghostberry is more appropriate here!


I Never Knew…

Some indigenous Americans used the wood of snowberry bushes as arrows. A far cry from children in Europe attacking each other with the soft berries!



Three snowberries against green leaves on a dark background, photo by Anya Chernik on Unsplash

Text between author and child, copyright Mabh Savage 2023

Snowberry bush laden with berries in a dark green area, photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


About the Author:

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist and content creator. She’s a nature-based witch, obsessed with Irish and British Paganism and Folklore, plus she’s a massive plant nerd. She’s also a long-time Hekate devotee and a newbie Lokean. She works extensively with the UK Pagan Federation, including editing their bi-annual children’s magazine. Mabh is a passionate environmentalist and an advocate for inclusiveness and positive social transformation.

Mabh is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors,  Pagan Portals – Celtic Witchcraft: Modern Witchcraft Meets Celtic Ways, and most recently, Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Planet Friendly Living. Search “Mabh Savage” on Spotify and @Mabherick on all socials.