by Pat Chadwick
In mid-autumn, when the floral display in the ornamental garden is winding down, shrubs and trees that bear colorful fruits and berries keep the show going well into winter. Ilex (holly), Pyracantha, Cotoneaster, Viburnum, and some species of Malus (crabapple) offer reds, oranges, yellows and even blues and blacks to the autumn palette. One plant stands out from the rest with its luminous purple berries. The genus name for this plant, Callicarpa (pronounced kal-lee-KAR-pah), comes from a combination of the Greek words callos (beauty) and carpos (fruit). One look at the colorful berry display and it becomes abundantly clear how this shrub got its common name of beautyberry.
If any plant can provide much appreciated bling in the autumn garden, its beautyberry. It’s a showstopper that never fails to draw lots of admiring glances from passersby. Beautyberry is an ordinary looking shrub in spring and early summer. The simple, opposite, elliptical-shaped leaves are moderately attractive but nothing special. When viewed up close, the flowers are charming but small and not particularly showy. From a distance, they are barely noticeable. However, this plant undergoes an amazing transformation once the berries start to ripen in late summer. Little clusters of greenish-looking, pearl-like berries that grace the entire length of each branch start turning the most extraordinary shades of vibrant purple. Some people describe the color as metallic purple. Others call it rosy pink, bright magenta, violet-purple or even neon violet. To my way of thinking, the color is faintly reminiscent of redbud blossoms in the spring. Regardless of what you call it, the color is stunning.
NATIVE AND NON-NATIVE SPECIES OF BEAUTYBERRY
Beautyberry belongs to a genus of about 140 deciduous or evergreen species, which are mainly tropical and subtropical. According to the Clemson Cooperative Extension’s Publication HGIC 1086, the following four deciduous species of beautyberry are the most commonly cultivated in ornamental gardens throughout the United States:
- Callicarpa americana is native to the southeastern part of the United States (although not specifically native to Albemarle County), where it grows wild in woodland settings from Maryland to Texas. It thrives in USDA gardening zones 7 through 11. It is best described as a loosely branched, deciduous shrub having simple, ovate or elliptical-shaped leaves averaging 6 inches in length. It produces small clusters of lavender-pink flowers in late spring to early summer, followed by violet-color berries in late summer to early fall. The shrub grows about six feet tall and five feet wide. ‘Lactea,’ which is a variation of C. americana, produces white fruit. ‘Welch’s Pink’ produces pink flowers in mid-summer and bright pink fruit in the fall.
- C. japonica is from Japan. This species averages six feet in height and width with a rounded habit and arching branches. It bears pink or white flowers and purple fruit. ‘Leucocarpa’ has white fruit.
- C. dichotoma is from China. This species has been cultivated to have greater cold tolerance and is hardy in Zones 5 – 8. It bears pink flowers and bright purple fruit. This graceful, more diminutive variety is a good choice for smaller gardens as it grows four feet tall and wide. Cultivars ‘Issai’ and ‘Early Amethyst,’ which blooms a little earlier than ‘Issai,’ are generally easy to find in local garden centers.
- C. bodinieri is also from China. Like C. dichotoma, this species is also hardy in Zones 5 – 8. Cultivar ‘Profusion’ bears pale pink flowers on arching stems and deep purple fruits in autumn. While most beautyberry species need two shrubs for a good fruit set, this cultivar is self-fertile and does not require a pollinator.
The question frequently arises about how to tell the difference between the native North American species and the non-native species of beautyberry. The differences basically consist of form, foliage and fruit:
- Form: The native North American beautyberry is larger than the Asian (non-native) species, is more upright, and is slightly taller than wide. The branches on the oriental species are more arching or weeping in form and are generally equally wide and tall.
- Foliage: The leaves on the native North American beautyberry measure three to six inches in length, whereas the smaller, narrower leaves of the non-native species measure one to three inches in length.
- Fruit: The fruit on both species is spaced along the entire length of the branch. However, the fruit on our native North American beautyberry is larger than the fruit on the non-native species and occurs in tightly formed clusters which wrap snugly around the branch. The fruit on the non-native species occurs in loosely formed clusters that are more open in appearance and are borne slightly away from the branch.
USES IN THE LANDSCAPE
Whether you refer to it as Callicarpa or its more common names of French mulberry or beautyberry, this plant is probably not used often enough in the landscape. It is an ideal choice for a shrub or mixed border or even as a loose hedge. As the featured plant in an autumn container garden, beautyberry is stunning when the fruit display is at its peak. Beautyberry will also tolerate moist sites and can be successfully used in rain gardens. While it can be used as a single specimen, you’ll get a better display of fruit if you plant them in groups.
Beautyberry fruits are high in moisture and are an important source of food for many species of birds, including mockingbirds, robins, bobwhite quails, and towhees. Foxes, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, other small rodents, and deer may consume the fruit in the fall after leaf drop. While the berries may last into the winter months, hungry wildlife may strip the berries off in the absence of other suitable food.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
- Cultural Requirements: Beautyberries are long-lived shrubs and ideally should be planted in loose, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. Once established, they are reasonably drought tolerant. However, under extreme drought conditions, they may drop their leaves and berries in order to compensate for the lack of moisture. Beautyberry does well in either partial shade or in sunny locations but the plant will have a denser habit and will produce more fruit in a sunny location. Give it plenty of room in the landscape. The weight of the berries can cause the branches to bend over, which may either shade or crowd other nearby plantings.
- Propagation: Beautyberry can be easily grown from seed. Collect very ripe berries and grow them in individual containers the first year. The following autumn, plant them outdoors. They may also be propagated using softwood cuttings. Beautyberry shrubs readily reseed largely due to bird and animal activity, which raises the possibility that it could become invasive. If that is a concern, the best approach is to grow only the native C. americana species.
- Maintenance: Beautyberry flowers on current year’s growth. For the best berry display, cut the shrub back in late winter or early spring to a low permanent framework about six inches high. This shrub may spread out or become rangy over time. If that becomes an issue, the plant will respond well to renovation pruning, in which all flowering stems should be cut back to the base of the plant.
- Pests and Diseases: This is a mostly trouble-free plant. Potential problems may include minor leaf spot (atractilina callicarpae) and black mold (Meliola cookeana).
A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (American Horticulture Society, 2008)
Clemson Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center Publication No. HGIC 1086, “Beautyberry,” http://www.clemson.edu/extension/ghic
Dirr, Michael, 2011, Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.
JCRaulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University Website http://jcra.ncsu.edu/
Ondra, Nancy J. and Cohen, Stephanie, 2007, Fallscaping – Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn.
U. S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Fact Sheet. Available on-line at http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CAAM2
VCE Pub 426-043, “Rain Garden Plants,” https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-043/426-043_pdf.pdf.
Weakley, Alan S., Ludwig, J. Christopher, and Townsend, John F., 2012, Flora of Virginia.