Oscar Wilde wrote “A spade is a spade,” and I happen to enjoy using one. My most useful garden tool is a flat, rectangular garden spade about 4 feet long with a D-handle — not a shovel. Plant names are specific too. For example: in Greek, callo means “beauty” and carpos means “fruit.” True to its scientific name, American Beautyberry, Callicarpus americana, does indeed have beautiful drupe fruits.
In the Family Lamiaceae (formerly placed in Verbenaceae), American Beautyberry is a perennial deciduous, woody, native shrub with masses of fragrant tiny pink-to-lavender flowers surrounding its long stems from May to August, depending on latitude (how far north or south a particular plant is growing). Flowers have ample nectar and pollen to attract bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators and the birds that eat insects and feed them to their nestling baby birds. Although short-lived to about 10 years, Beautyberry self-seeds and grows naturally throughout the Southeast USA from Florida north to Maryland and west across the Mississippi River to Kansas and Texas in USDA cold hardiness zones 6–11. It is a pioneer species, useful when restoring disturbed ecosystems like roadsides, old fields, over-cleared vacant lots and homesites.
A small, deciduous, cold-hardy shrub, Beautyberry grows an average 5 to 6 feet tall with a similar diameter spread in about five years. To induce bushiness, gardeners can tip prune young stem after they have three or four sets of leaf nodes. No tool is required — just pinch off the tips with fingers in spring — usually before mid-May in Central Florida. As Beautyberry flowers only on new stems, older tall woody stems can be removed after younger ones have grown. Prune in winter when the plant is dormant, but after the persistent berries are gone.
Opposite simple, aromatic leaves are light green, hairy underneath, 3 to 6 inches long with long petiole stalks, prominent veins and bluntly toothed or scalloped margin edges. From late summer and fall, the best feature is the dense masses of magenta purple berries (drupe fruits) that develop after flowering and pollination. Unripe berries are green. After the leaves abscise and are shed in fall, ripe berries persist into winter unless eaten by birds and other wildlife.
Although astringent, berries are not toxic to humans, pets, birds, mammals or other wildlife. The high moisture content in berries and the two to four seeds are valuable food resources for wildlife. Some 40 species of birds eat Beautyberry fruits, including American Robins, Bobwhite quail, Brown Thrashers, Cardinals, Eastern Towhees, Northern Mockingbirds and assorted finches. Fruit is also eaten by armadillos, coyotes, foxes, insects, possums, raccoons and squirrels. Wildlife disperses seeds far from the parent plant. Seeds sprout and seedlings grow without any maintenance or supplemental irrigation. Deer and domestic livestock browse on the leaves and stems. Spring leaves have a higher protein content than older fall leaves — 18% protein in spring and about 8% in fall.
Note: I am a global traveler, multinational of British birth, so can inform my fellow U.S. citizens that in the rest of the English speaking world, the “h” in “herbal” is pronounced, not silent; therefore, it does not start with a vowel. “An ‘erbal” is definitely grammatically incorrect. The common and denigrated Cockney dialect in London, UK is the sole exception.
People make a herbal tisane, infusion or “tea” from the tap root and jelly and wine from the fruit and. The leaves contain callicarpenal and intermedeol compounds that have useful insect repellent properties.
Easily grown, drought-tolerant, low maintenance Calicarpa americana is readily available. At Jane’s Garden, a second-year Beautyberry in a 6-inch diameter pot costs a dollar. A white-fruited variety is sometimes available from specialty growers and privately owned nurseries. If subjected to overhead irrigation, leaf spot (Atractilina callicarpae) and black mold (Meliola cookeana) could become a problem. Beautyberry needs no supplemental irrigation after establishment.
Homeowners use beautyberry as an ornamental specimen in the landscape, in mass plantings in privacy and wildlife attracting buffer zones or borders. This attractive native shrub is common along roadsides, property lines and fence rows.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Contact her at email@example.com or phone 352-249-6899.