With so many invasive plants causing untold problems, many people have started to educate themselves on natives. By choosing local species, gardeners are also helping wildlife and insects with familiar food sources too. In the southern half of eastern North America, the beautyberry, Callicarpa, americana is a great native choice. It grows best in USDA Zones 6-10, and even a bit further north, however severe winter cold may freeze it back to the ground, so mulch well each autumn in its most northern areas.
This deciduous shrub has a beautiful arching shape that makes a great statement along the rear border of the garden. Growing between 3 and 6 feet if it isn't pruned, it blooms in early summer with pinkish or lavender flowers, but the real show is in late autumn when the stems are covered in electric purple berries. Native to the understory of hardwood forests, it does well in light shade or full sun, but the best show of the vibrant berries will be if your plant grows with at least 6 hours of full sun each day. It blooms on new wood, so if you wish to use it in a smaller area than it naturally grows, then pruning it to about 2 feet from the ground in late winter will result in a smaller, bushier plant. It likes moist, well-drained acid soil with lots of organic matter, but will also grow in clay soils of dubious fertility. Once established, the beautyberry can withstand a bit of drought, but the berries will drop from the branches in a survival action.
The genus, Callicarpa is a large tribe of similar shrubs with relatives around the globe and most of them are also called beautyberries. The Latin name is quite fitting. Callos means 'beautiful' and carpa is the Greek designation for fruit. So, the beautyberry is a beautiful fruit. Since there are several other ornamental species, if you wish to grow the North American native plant, be sure to specify Callicarpa americana to your nursery or garden center. There are a number of commercial cultivars available.
The American native peoples knew of the beautyberry and it was part of their herbal pharmacy. Tea from the roots and berries was astringent and often used for sore throats and bleeding ulcers. They also used it as a treatment for malaria, fevers and colic. The crushed leaves were used as an insect repellent for people and beasts of burden alike and science has confirmed that this is an accurate use. The USDA has determined that the compound callicarpenal repels flies, mosquitoes and other biting insects. Planting the shrubs around your patios and other outdoor areas may help deter them.
The distinctive purple berries are high in moisture content and while they are technically edible for humans, most people do not care for the taste. However, that is not true for the native wildlife. Deer adore the berries and the leaves, while possums, raccoons, skunks and other small mammals think they are pretty tasty as well. Quail and other game birds flock to them and so do songbirds, so the beautyberry is a good choice for a wildlife-friendly garden. The shrub is also a host plant for the Rustic Sphinx moth and a few other members of the Sphingidae family too. It is a tough shrub that is somewhat fire tolerant and is on the list of pioneer plants that are often the first to repopulate an area after a wildfire, so is useful in reclamation projects where native plants are needed to keep the invasives from taking hold after a disaster.
Shrubs can be purchased from many sources. Plant them in fertile, well-drained soil where they will get at least 6 hours of full sun each day. (more is better)They are especially stunning if massed in groups of 5 or more along property lines or the back of the border. You can propagate more from either seeds or softwood cuttings, but remember that if you have one of the many hybrids available, your seeds may not produce offspring exactly like the parent. Sow fresh seeds in a cold frame in the fall or in late winter under lights. The seeds will sprout when temperatures reliably reach more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Callicarpa americana is a wonderful native shrub that should be utilized more often. It has few pests, grows quickly and is hardy in a wide range of climates. It is even native to areas of the Caribbean, Mexico and as far south as Guatemala. Wildlife love the berries and the colorful sprays are fantastic in dried arrangements, so florists like it as well. It is unusual shrub that also works as a repellent for biting insects and has a great legacy of being useful to native peoples. It is perfectly happy in an urban or suburban setting or on a piece of rural property, so get to know this great little shrub and consider adding several to your gardens.
(images courtesy of PlantFiles)