All over the Southeast America's most beautiful berry is astounding those who come across it in the wild. Those who have incorporated it into their landscape, however, are in a state of celebration. This berry is the American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana.
It is native in 14 states; from Missouri to Tennessee and Virginia to Maryland and all states south from Texas to Florida it has the common name, French Mulberry. American beautyberry is an arching deciduous shrub that can reach 5 to 8 feet in height.
Many gardeners are surprised to find it is in the verbena family. Like its other shrubby relatives, it is a pollinator magnet when in bloom. You really have to pay attention though to notice the intricately designed blooms as they tend to be hidden by leaves. Amazingly the blooms are quickly followed by hundreds of glistening berries.
The berries that catch our eye most often are those with the richest purple, a color fit for royalty. Here at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, we have those that are also pink and others that are white. The white selections are planted in the White Garden our location of almost weekly weddings.
According to the USDA, the berries are eaten by over 40 species of birds. My friend Fitz Clarke, an extraordinary naturalist and photographer, shared his recent photo showing a mockingbird with a plump, purple berry in its mouth. Brown thrashers, American robins, and Eastern towhees are a few of the birds you may find devouring the fruit.
While I am touting the beauty of the fruit and the attraction of pollinators, the Native Americans used the roots, leaves, and branches for medicinal purposes. One of the more interesting historical items on a USDA Fact Sheet is that early 20th century farmers would crush the leaves and place them under the harness of horses and mules to repel mosquitos.
The USDA Plant Fact Sheet states that studies conducted by the Agricultural Research Service have shown two compounds-callicarpenal and intermedeol are indeed responsible for the repellent. This native shrub has so much going for it.
The American beautyberry is cold hardy from zones 6-9, and though may get eaten by a deer, it can come flourishing back. If you live north of zone 6, you may want to try Callicarpa dichotoma which is native to Japan, China, and Korea and is cold hardy to zone 5. We have several of the variety Issai, and they exhibit the same propensity for pollinators. They are more compact reaching 3 to 4 feet with a 5-foot spread.
It seems all of the beautyberries thrive wherever we have them, full sun, part sun, and understory to pine forest. Flowers and berries are produced on new growth so pruning old wood in late winter before the onset of spring growth simply gives you more of those luscious berries for your birds.
In the garden, we use beautyberries with showy Kaleidoscope abelias, in another area, they are paired with white blooming hydrangea paniculatas. In our pine forest, the beauty berries are within eye sight of Florida Sunshine anise (Illicium parviflorum) with its golden chartreuse foliage.
American beauty berry does send up volunteers that are easy to dig up and remove or better yet, transplant to another area of the garden. I hope you will consider incorporating this native in your garden or perhaps as a flowing container plant. The bees, birds, and butterflies will be glad you did.
(Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.)
(c)2017 Norman Winter
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