Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Creeping Snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula)
The genus Gaultheria was named for Jean-François Gaultier, a naturalist and physician in Quebec in the mid-18th century. The Latin name hispidula means "finely bristled," and is a reference to the bristles on the stem and leaves. The common name is a reference to the small, white berries that appear in late summer. The plant is also known as Moxie Plum, apparently a reference to the Algonquian word for medicine.
This plant is listed as threatened in Connecticut and Rhode Island, as endangered in Maryland and New Jersey, and rare in Pennsylvania. It is presumed extirpated in Ohio.
Identification of Creeping Snowberry
This attractive little plant is a low-growing, mat-like, evergreen shrub. The creeping stems, which are covered with brown bristles, form leafy mats on logs and hummocks, often near Sphagnum moss. The leaves and berries of this plant taste and smell like wintergreen.
The plant may be recognized in any season by its growing habit and its leaves. The tiny dark green, evergreen leaves are alternately arranged, meaning that a single leaf is attached at a node. The leaves are egg-shaped or rounded, very short-stalked, hairless above and with scattered brownish hairs below. They are generally less than 3/8 inch in length. The leaf margins (edges) are smooth, meaning that the leaves do not have teeth. The underside of the leaf is a lighter green.
The pale white flowers appear in spring. The four-parted flowers are small and bell-shaped. The flowers are generally 1/16 to 1/8 inch across. They hang along the undersides of the running stems and are usually hidden beneath the leaves.
The flowers are followed by fruit, which is the source of this plant's common name. The berries are white and egg-shaped, about ¼ inch in diameter. Berries are often hidden among the small leaves. The berries, which are said to be edible, ripen in mid- to late summer. In the Adirondack region, the berries usually appear in late July or early August.
Uses of Creeping Snowberry
Creeping Snowberry fruits reportedly are edible. The berries are sometimes eaten fresh, with cream and sugar. They can also be made into a preserve. The berries are said to be pleasantly acid, with a wintergreen flavor. The leaves are also said to be edible. They can be eaten raw or cooked or used to make a tea.
The plant has limited medicinal uses. Native Americans used it to some extent. For instance, the Algonquin used an infusion of leaves as a tonic for overeating. They also consumed the fruit. The Chippewa used the leaves to make a beverage. The Anticosti used the plant as a sedative to facilitate sleep.
Wildlife Value of Creeping Snowberry
Creeping Snowberry has limited wildlife value. This species is pollinated by solitary bees, bumblebees, bee-flies, and hover flies. The berries are eaten by chipmunks and deer mice. Creeping Snowberry is a host plant for the Bog Fritillary.
Distribution of Creeping Snowberry
Creeping snowberry is distributed in the boreal region of North America from Labrador, west to British Columbia and south into the northern United States. It can be found in the northeastern United States, west to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Creeping Snowberry is rare at the southern end of its range.
In New York State, its presence has been documented in most counties in the eastern part of the state. Creeping Snowberry occurs in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line.
Habitat of Creeping Snowberry
Creeping Snowberry grows in acidic and neutral soils. It can grow in well- or poorly drained soils. It is shade-tolerant.
In New York State, Creeping Snowberry is often found growing on hummocks in cool swamps or on mossy sites in cool mixed or coniferous forests. It is sometimes found on rotting logs or stumps. In the Adirondack Park, Creeping Snowberry is found in several ecological communities:
Look for Creeping Snowberry on the edges of bogs. A convenient place to observe this species is near the Barnum Pond Overlook on the Boreal Life Trail, where it forms a dense mat, creating a miniature landscape. You can also find Creeping Snowberry at higher elevations, in alpine zones of Adirondack high peaks.
Michael Kudish. Adirondack Upland Flora: An Ecological Perspective (The Chauncy Press, 1992), p. 143.
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