American Beautyberry, French Mulberry (Callicarpa americana)

Here in Texas, we don’t really enjoy traditional autumn colors from our trees and shrubs as is common in New England, the Midwest, or even the Pacific Northwest.  The   dramatic foliage mosaic that defines “fall” for many doesn’t occur for us in October. Our deciduous trees transform their leaf color in response to less light and colder temperatures, but that conversion isn’t until late November/December and transpires  over a longer stretch of time, versus the spectacular two or three-week performance in October typical to other parts of the United States.  However, we in Texas are gifted a second blooming period in the fall months (until the first hard freeze), which rivals our spring beauty. Accompanying that second bloom extravaganza, there are many trees and shrubs which berry, providing food for indigenous and migrating birds.  My favorite of the berrying shrubs is the American Beautyberry or French Mulberry, Callicarpa americana. Continuing with the series, A Seasonal Look, I would like to share my experiences with this wonderful native shrub.

American Beautyberry is a native deciduous shrub throughout the American South, including Texas.  It is usually a medium-sized shrub, but can grow quite large in cultivated gardens. My original plant,

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grew to about six feet tall and about ten feet across before it began a decline which continues, although the plant is still living.  This specimen,

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…planted in the Howson Library garden in Austin, isn’t as large as mine, but it is substantial. Beautyberry develops arching branches and is best left in its natural form; it’s not a plant you want to prune for “neatness.”  In this natural form, it provides cover for wildlife and that’s always a good thing.  Gardeners can prune the dormant shrub to about a foot from the ground in late winter if a more compact size is the goal. I’ve never pruned my Beautyberries, except for stem waywardness (that’s a quirky definition) and when stems died, as has happened with my original shrub.

Known primarily for the showy, purple berries or fruits which form in clusters along the branches,

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…the American Beautyberry is drought tolerant, a good wildlife plant, and a lovely landscape shrub for the Southern garden.  In late September, October, and November. it reaches the zenith of its beauty.   Those berries!

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They are quite something in the garden.  I’ve always thought they look otherworldly, not entirely natural.

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That’s a natural color?

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Yes, the color is natural and the birds love the berries!  Usually in my garden, it’s the Mockingbirds who stake their claim to ownership of the berries, one or two Mocks fighting off other birds for the privilege of fine bird dining that the sumptuous berries provide. But I’ve also seen Blue Jays as well, swooping onto the shrub, then hopping from branch to branch, plucking and munching as they go. The berries are an unusual, bright, almost metallic, purple, and if the birds don’t eat them up within a few weeks, gardeners can enjoy their gorgeousness for quite a long time. I’ve read that the fruits can be made into jelly, but I haven’t tried that, nor have I ever tasted either the berries or jelly. There are also white-fruited Beautyberries–White American BeautyberryCallicarpa americana var. lactea.  At Zilker Botanical Garden, several grow in the Green Garden and I’ve seen White Beautyberries for sale at nurseries. I like them and more importantly, the birds like them, but the purple has my heart.

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Additionally, deer favor the leaves, so Beautyberry is not a good plant if you share your garden space with those particular mammals.  I said it was a good wildlife plant, didn’t I?

After the inevitable freeze, the berries (if birds have left any) shrivel up.  Also, after the first hard freeze, the foliage of the Beautyberry will turn yellow and drop.  The Beautyberry remains bare of leaves and (usually) of berries for the duration of winter.

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This specimen is my original plant.  It’s about eighteen years old and began declining about a year ago. The branches died, one by one, and I’ve prune most of them off.   Assuming that the original was on its way out, I planted a new Beautyberry in October 2013,

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….next to the original.  The new Beautyberry has the tall stem which towers over the the original, which is significantly shorter and with fewer branches.  The original shrub produced berries this year,

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…but the new Beautyberry didn’t, though it bloomed in early summer.  Along with this new specimen in my front garden, I planted another in the back garden.

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…which sports fruit clusters this fall (2014).  The back garden Beautyberry receives no direct sun, only dappled light,

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…and the Beautyberry in the front receives dappled light most of the day, then is blasted by the last of the west sun.  The soil in which it resides dries out during the summer.  I hand-watered when the Beautyberry looked pathetic and it’s weathered its first summer well.

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The back Beautyberry is situated in generally moist soil, because of shade and the clay content of the soil. I think that explains the difference in fruit production for this year, though I expect both shrubs will produce berries equally as the plants mature and the roots establish themselves. According the the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s page on American Beautyberry, this shrub prefers a moist, bottomland type of soil, but I’ve seen them planted in a variety of situations.  Beautyberries thrive in either sun or shade and varying soil types, but are drought tolerant in shade or part shade, requiring more irrigation with more sun exposure. Beautyberry is adaptable.  My father grows a huge one in Corpus Christi, in full sun, in sand.  He irrigates more than I do.

Once spring temperatures warm and the days lengthen, fresh, new leaves emerge. Tiny at first,

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…they grow rapidly to their full size.

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These photos show the newly planted Beautyberries from last spring, but established Beautyberry shrubs leaf out similarly. The leaves grow large, are thin rather than thick, and are light, bright green in color.  They form opposite from one another and are slightly serrated.  The leaves reportedly contain a chemical which repels insects from people and livestock. I haven’t tested that by crushing a leaf and spreading it on my skin, but I should,  as there are plenty of mosquitos in the gardens.

In May, the Beautyberry begins blossoming for about six weeks with delicate pink flowers.

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Flowering occurs at the nodes of the leaves,

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…and as the flowers fade,  the green fruits develop. The green berries remain on the main stem throughout summer.

The berries begin their gradual transformation to the iconic purple sometime in August,

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along the stems of the shrubs, cluster by cluster.

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And then–Shazamm!

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Those are some purple berries!

I confess that I get annoyed in those years when the birds snarf the berries within a week or two of the Great Purpling.  I wish they’d leave them, just a little longer, for me to enjoy.  But while I may long for and appreciate the beauty of the berries, the birds need the berries for sustenance.  I plant this beautiful native shrub for the birds–I can’t really complain when they do what I want them to do–eat the berries, fill their tummies, and spread Beautyberry joy throughout the land–or at least, throughout the neighborhood.

So goes a year in the life of an American Beautyberry.  It’s a desirable understory shrub–valuable for its landscape qualities and its importance for wildlife.  Plant one today!

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