May 2015
The Magic of Gardening

American Beautyberry

 
  American beautyberry is a perennial shrub with multi-season beauty and usefulness. Inset, a close-up of the plant’s fruit.

Callicarpa americana, the American Beautyberry, is so prevalent in Alabama it may not be appreciated as a multipurpose plant as highly as it deserves. It is a great garden perennial shrub with multi-season beauty and usefulness that is well suited to almost any garden situation. I call it a perennial and a shrub because you can treat it somewhat like an herbaceous perennial by cutting it back hard each winter, but it is, technically speaking, a woody shrub. If you have them growing wild on your property, they are probably blooming now or will bloom very soon. However, the blooms are not extremely showy. The big show for this plant comes later with the bright purple-colored fruit abundant in late-summer and fall. They also have fairly nice yellow fall-foliage color which is an additional ornamental quality.

Although this plant is most often found in the coastal plains and Piedmont, it grows very well in almost any soil found in Alabama. It is very drought tolerant, but will not survive long in a very poorly drained soil. This plant will grow in partial shade or under pine trees, but it will stay looking better and bloom and fruit more profusely in full sun. I suggest you mass several plants together for maximum impact. They can get from 3-8 feet tall and would, therefore, work well towards the rear of a perennial border. If you would like a native substitute for the somewhat invasive lantana, the beautyberry comes closest to filling the bill. The bloom period is shorter and not as showy, but it makes up for it in the fall with the showy fruit and nice fall color.

The purple-fruited forms are the most common, but white forms are occasionally found in the wild and readily available from nurseries. A mass planting mixing the white and purple form is striking and will add fall interest to an often less-than-colorful fall flower or shrub bed. The roots, leaves, fruit and branches of the plant were used by several Native American tribes for various medicinal purposes. The fruit are very bland which may explain why the birds wait until late in the fall to consume them. Either they are finding more palatable fruit or they become tastier the longer they remain on the plant. At least 10 species of birds feed on the fruit and it is an important food source for bobwhite quail. Several wildlife species feed on the plant and fruit, but deer are particularly fond of the foliage.

The stems covered with fruit make an excellent addition to any flower arrangement. The fruit retain their color very well. You can learn more about drying and preserving flowers and plant materials by visiting the Extension website, www.aces.edu, and searching the publications list with the keywords "drying flowers."

The plants are easy to propagate from seed or softwood cuttings in early summer. They often produce seedlings near any current plantings that can be dug and moved at any time of the year with good success. Pruning is normally done in winter, but any time before they start their spring growth is fine because they flower on the new growth. They can be pruned as hard as you like based on the size plant you desire. If you prune them back near the ground, you will have a shorter more manageable plant. If you need a taller shrub, prune them back to 2-3 feet tall.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.