Category Archives: Shrubs

Fall Shrub ID: Rosy Meadowsweet

Photo of Rosy Meadowsweet in fall

Two species of Meadowsweet (genus Spiraea) are native to New England, White Meadowsweet (S. alba) and Rosy Meadowsweet (S. tomentosa). The two are readily separated by flower color (tomentosa's flowers are rosy-red, whereas those of alba are white or light pink), leaf undersides (furry-hairy in tomentosa vs. hairless, or nearly so, in alba), and shape (tomentosa has a more slender, pointed spire). The latter feature explains Rosy Meadowsweet's alternative common name of Steeplebush.

To learn more and see photos of both Spiraeas, visit Go Botany: Rosy Meadowsweet and White Meadowsweet. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Poisonous Plants: Glossy False Buckthorn

Photo of Glossy False Buckthorn

I occasionally receive emails from people eager to know the identify of a particular fruit-bearing plant. Some have wondered if they've found Black Huckleberry. Others have guessed Choke Cherry. But all too often photos reveal their mystery plant to be Glossy False Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), a poisonous plant (or at least one with strong medicinal properties) as far as humans are concerned.

While there are many ways to tell these three species apart, one simple way is to examine the seeds. Each Choke Cherry contains one hard, central pit; each Black Huckleberry has ten small, crunchy seeds; Glossy False Buckthorn berries have __________. [I could tell you the answer, but it's more fun to go and find out for yourself. Report back with your findings.]

To learn more about this shrub, visit Go Botany. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Winter Shrub ID: Red Elderberry

Photo of Red Elderberry flower buds

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is distinctive in the white season, with pairs of plump, green or purple flower buds and bark with prominently raised lenticels. Other field marks include heart or shield-shaped leaf scars with usually 5-7 bundle scars and persisting, finely branched fruit stalks with an overall dome shape.

The plant's red fruits, which are said to be edible for humans if prepared properly (I've not tried them, but see the comments section of Foraging Wild Flowers: Black Elderberry), are certainly eaten by various birds and mammals. In any case, the fruits do not persist into the white season. Red Elderberry is a clumping shrub or small tree capable of spreading by rhizome. To learn more about this native woody plant, visit GoBotany. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Foraging Wild Fruit: Huckleberry

In July and August, wild Blueberries (genus Vaccinium) receive a lot of attention from New Englanders. Long before I'd foraged any other wild food, I used to join my family on a walk to some swampy woods to gather Highbush Blueberries at least once each summer. It's no wonder why: blueberries are delicious, often prolific, and in many instances can be picked for free! And no matter where you live in New England, there's more than one type that can be found.

Closely related to Blueberries (also in the Ericaceae family) are the three species of Huckleberries (genus Gaylussacia), who tend to get less attention from the average wild fruit forager, but I'd argue are no less deserving of appreciation. I've written about Black, Blue, and Dwarf Huckleberry before, and I thought today would be a perfect time to post a reminder about these lesser-known, crunchy-seeded, summertime fruits.

Photo of Black Huckleberry handfulBlack Huckleberry
G. baccata

grows in forests and fields in every state in New England


Photo of Blue Huckleberry handfulBlue Huckleberry
G. frondosa

grows in similar (though sometimes wetter) habitats in CT, RI, MA, and NH


Photo of Dwarf Huckleberry handfulDwarf Huckleberry
G. bigeloviana

grows in bogs and fens in all but VT, though is listed as rare in NH, CT, and RI

Subshrub ID: Trailing-arbutus

Photo of Trailing-arbutus flowering

With egg-shaped, evergreen leaves and distinctly hairy, woody stems, Trailing-arbutus (Epigaea repens), a member of the Heath (Ericaceae) family, is a short subshrub who is recognizeable year-round. In early spring, flower buds that have been present for months at the tips of twigs begin to swell and open, revealing fragrant, white or pink flowers (you may need to bring your nose close to a cluster of flowers to notice their sweet scent).

Photo of Trailing-arbutus flowers and flower buds

Trailing-arbutus is the provincial flower of Nova Scotia and the state flower of Massachusetts. Another common name is Mayflower, which apparently refers not to the month of the year, but rather to the famous ship associated with Plymouth Colony pilgrims.

Photo of Trailing-arbutus stem

While this plant's flowers are a familiar and welcome sight to me, I've yet to see the fruit of this creeping plant. Last summer, Mary Holland shared a photo of some developing fruit on her Naturally Curious blog. With the help of her search image, I figure it's just a matter of time before I discover some fruit for myself.

Photo of Trailing-arbutus patch