How to Plant, Grow and Care For American Beautyberry
Looking for a perennial shrub that is low maintenance, pollinator-friendly, wildlife-friendly, and interesting? As a new gardener or even seasoned landscaper, including shapely, fast-growing, prolific plants is a must, and the American beautyberry is one plant that can hold its own in the landscape. Interested in this overlooked landscape plant? Let gardening and flower expert Taylor Sievers share the benefits and care tips for the unique and beautiful American beautyberry.
A fast-growing, attractive, and wildlife-friendly shrub? You may have never heard of the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), but it checks all the boxes. It can grow 4 to 7 feet (and sometimes 10 feet!) in just one season!
This U.S. native shrub of the mint family, Lamiaceae, is fast-growing, drought tolerant, and produces beautiful purple to violet berries each fall. Let’s dive into the world of the beautyberry to learn more!
|Botanical Name: Callicarpa americana
|Sun Req: Full Sun to Part Shade
|Hardiness Zones: USDA Zones 6 to 11
|Water Needs: Moderate; Drought Tolerant
|Soil Needs: Wide range of soils; Well-draining
|Plant Type: Deciduous woody shrub
|Height: 4 to 7 feet tall
|Pet Toxic: No; crushed leaves may cause dermatitis in some humans
|Bloom Colors: Pink, white, lavender
|Spacing: 5 to 6 feet apart
|Attracts: Bees, Birds, Butterflies
About American Beautyberry
American beautyberry is a moderately sized woody perennial shrub native to the central and southeastern United States, Bermuda, and Cuba. It has also been known to grow in northern Mexico.
Other names include American mulberry, French mulberry, sour-bush, bunchberry, and purple beauty-berry. It sports an opposite leaf arrangement with leaves of saw-toothed margins. The flowers form in clusters that distinctly encircle the stem. Lilac flowers are present from May to June. Purple, blue, or white berries develop from August to October.
The genus name, Callicarpa, is derived from the Greek “callos,” which means “beauty,” and “carpos,” which means “fruit.” There are about seven species in the genus, but only the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is native to the U.S.
When crushed, the leaves of beautyberry are said to repel mosquitoes and other insects due to the presence of callicarpenol and intermedeol. Early 20th century farmers were recorded to crush beautyberry leaves and rub them under the harness and on the bodies of work horses and mules to prevent attacks from biting bugs. People also used the leaves on their bodies for the same purpose.
Today, American beautyberries are planted in the landscape in hedgerows, native plantings, and pollinator gardens.
Why You Should Plant American Beautyberry
American beautyberries are easy to care for. They bloom and set fruit on new growth each year, so pruning is a breeze in the spring. Just prune the old branches down to 12 inches tall or less, and you’ll have beautiful bright purple berries by Fall on long arching branches that can reach 4 to 7 feet tall in one season.
American beautyberries can be propagated via seeds or softwood cuttings.
Propagating From Seed
Each berry contains at least 2 to 3 seeds that are 1/16 inch long. To propagate by seed, plant the whole berry after crushing it between your fingers to expose the seeds, or process the berries to separate the seeds from the fruit.
Berries can be placed in a blender with water. After mixing, allow the liquid to sit. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom, and everything else can be skimmed off the top and blended again. Do this until the seeds are adequately separated. Drain the seeds and allow them to dry before storing.
Plant the seeds directly into the soil in late fall or sow them in pots filled with moist peat and vermiculite-based mix. Once the seed germinates and the seedling has an adequately-sized, healthy root system, you can transplant it after frost.
Propagating From Cuttings
Softwood cuttings can be taken either in the spring or fall. Choose a healthy branch of newer growth at least 4 to 6 inches long.
Strip the lower leaves and dip the bottom of the stem in a rooting hormone to help speed up the rooting of the cutting. Place the cutting in a prepared pot filled with a moist peat-and-perlite-based mixture. Poke a hole in the potting mix, place the cutting in the hole, and then gently firm the potting mix around the cutting.
Keep the cuttings moist by placing them under a humidity dome until new growth appears. It will usually take cuttings about 3 to 4 weeks to root.
How to Plant
You can typically purchase this plant at nurseries as a small shrub. Plant beautyberries at least 5 to 6 feet apart to ensure adequate spacing between plants.
Plant the shrubs so the top of the pot is even with the soil line. Beautyberries can thrive in almost any type of soil as long as it is well-draining, so there is no need to amend the soil unless you are planting in a typically waterlogged site.
Seeds can be sown in the fall or early spring. Most of the time, stratification (a cold period) is not needed.
How to Grow
Once established, this shrub is easy to grow and care for, with limited disease and pest problems and new growth every year.
This gorgeous shrub requires full sun to part sun locations. It will need at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. In warmer climates, this shrub may benefit from a little bit of shade to prevent scorching by the sun.
Do not plant it in full shade because it will not thrive. Beautyberries may sometimes grow in the shade but will not flower and fruit as they should.
This is a fairly drought-tolerant native shrub with moderate rainfall needs. It will also naturalize along streams and ponds if the area is well-draining.
This native beautyberry tolerates almost any soil as long as it is well-draining. It can also tolerate a wide range of soil pH levels (pH range of 4.8 to 7.0).
Climate & Temperature
This genus prefers warmer growing zones. The shrubs are winter hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11. In some cases, they can survive in USDA zone 6.
The Japanese and Chinese species of beautyberry (C. japonica, C. dichotoma, C. bodinieri) are said to be more cold tolerant, with a hardiness up to zone 5.
Regardless, the foliage does not tolerate frosts well, so this shrub is usually later to leaf out in the spring. Some old branches and canes may survive over the winter but do not expect all to recover. That is why beautyberries are typically hard-pruned in the late winter and early spring.
Avoid fertilizing because too many nutrients will sometimes prevent flowering and fruit set. This native plant is tolerant of poor soils, which makes this shrub relatively low maintenance.
Pruning is important to rejuvenate the plant and to promote a shapely look.
The beautyberry shrub blooms on new wood (basically, new growth), so pruning nearly to the ground in the spring will not prevent flowering and fruit set. In fact, hard-pruning this shrub down to 6 to 12 inches in late winter is recommended!
Some old canes will push out leaves if they are not pruned, but this often leaves the bush with a scraggly, unkempt appearance.
Pests & Diseases
There are a few pests and diseases that will affect this shrub. In some cases, leaf spots or black mold may be a problem.
Promoting good air circulation by planting with adequate spacing between shrubs will help prevent disease issues. Also, watering at the base of the plant or in the mornings will reduce foliage wetness, thus mitigating disease.
Uses or Common Planting Locations
American beautyberries are best used in hedgerow plantings, native plantings, and pollinator or butterfly gardens. The berries will often stay on the plant for a while, making it a great plant for a winter garden.
Beautyberries may also be used in cut flower arrangements when the berries form to provide color and interest.
If you’re interested in a shrub that provides food for wildlife, then American beautyberry may be for you. The berries are eaten by over 40 different songbirds, including the American Robin, Brown Thrasher, Purple Finch, and Eastern Towhee. Armadillos, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and squirrels will also eat the berries. Deer will browse the berries after the leaves drop. Cattle have been known to eat the twigs.
Not only are beautyberries edible for wildlife, but the ripened berries are also used by humans to make jellies, juices, and teas.
Other Species & Varieties of Beautyberry
While C. americana is the native American beautyberry, a few other species or hybrids of Callicarpa are worth noting.
Callicarpa americana var. lactea is a variation of beautyberry with white berries instead of purple or violet berries.
Commercially, a few Callicarpa hybrids are available in recent years, like ‘Purple Pearls’ and ‘Pearl Glam.’ What’s distinct about these cultivars is that they have beautiful purple foliage.
Also commercially available is ‘Early Amethyst,’ which is not an American variety (C. americana) but rather of the species Callicarpa dichotoma. ‘Duet’ is another variety of C. dichotoma that has variegated foliage.
C. dichotoma, C. japonica, and C. bodineri are all species of beautyberry that are native to Asia. Still, they are very similar in growth habits to the American species and seem to be more widely available in commerce.
‘Luxurians’ is a variety of Japanese beautyberry (C. japonica) that produces larger clusters of fruit. ‘Leucocarpa’ is a white-fruited Japanese variety.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, American beautyberry is not toxic to pets. Many wild animals, like deer, squirrels, and birds, like to eat the berries. They can be an important food source for wildlife.
American beautyberry is often promoted as an understory plant because it can tolerate shade. However, full shade situations will often reduce the amount of flowers and foliage the plant produces. Opt for sites in full sun to part shade if you can. In warm climates with intense sunlight, it may be wise to plant in part shade so the plant does not get scorched.
The crushed leaves of American beautyberry have been rubbed on the body of both humans and livestock animals over history to repel mosquitoes and other insects. This is due to the presence of a few different compounds like callicarpenol and intermedeol. Be cautious when applying, as some humans have reported contact dermatitis.
Yes, the American beautyberry will lose its leaves in the winter. In fact, the leaves are particularly sensitive to frost, which is why this shrub is sometimes the last to push out new leaves in the spring. However, this shrub provides winter interest because of its bright purple to violet berries that persist well into the fall and winter.
If you’re looking for a U.S. native shrub that is easy to care for, pollinator and wildlife friendly, and attractive, this is the plant for you! In my opinion, this shrub is often overlooked in the landscape.
The branches proliferate rapidly into beautiful arching sprays. The attractive purple (or, in some cases, white) berries persist well into the winter. I am always looking for attractive shrubs to add along my fence line that will grow rapidly. These shrubs are so low maintenance and suitable for many soils and sunlight situations. Adding them to the garden is a no-brainer!