10/23/2019 9:56:04 AM
By Heather Sullivan
The best plant that you might never have heard of is American Beautyberry, a native shrub also known as French Mulberry, Spanish Mulberry, and Sourbush. The scientific genus name is from the Greek word “kallos” meaning beauty and “kapos” meaning fruit. It is a shrub that is distributed from Maryland along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast states through to Texas, and as far north as Missouri. Most of the year, it is a forgettable bush until its fruit matures, then it will catch your eye and make you covet it for your yard. The almost indescribably magenta-purple colored berries grow in thick clusters in the leaf axils along the long arching branches and are usually present after the leaves drop off in the fall. The berries serve as an important food source for more than 40 songbirds, white-tailed deer, quail, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, gray foxes, squirrels, and small rodents. These creatures are the plant’s dispersal strategy in the landscape.
The mature shrubs are usually about 5 feet tall in most habitats in Mississippi but can reach up to 9 feet in rich conditions. Normally it prefers dry, well-drained habitats, but occasionally can be found on high points in swamps and floodplain forests. It is usually a multi-trunked, woody plant, but may rarely be found as a tree-form with a single trunk. The long, arching branches usually overwinter but can die back to the ground in extremely cold winters.
The leaves are light green, elliptic in shape, and usually about nine inches long. The leaf margin is coarsely toothed and the surface often has rough hairs. The leaves are paired along the branches and may rarely be in whorls of three leaves. The fall color is a bright yellow-green, a gorgeous contrast to the purple fruit. The leaves have a spicy aroma that can be overwhelming when you walk through patches of the plants. The small, tubular flowers are present in May to June; these are clustered in the leaf axils. The flowers vary in color from pale pink to lavender. They are rich in nectar and are attractive to native pollinators, which is evident by the prolific fruit in the fall.
In 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) at the National Center of Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi investigated the local use of the plant as a natural insect repellent. Several families in the Oxford area reported rubbing the crushed leaves on livestock and themselves as a repellent against biting flies, mosquitos, and some species of ticks. USDA-ARS determined that the leaves contain three chemicals that act as natural repellents: callicarpenal, intermedeol, and spathulenol.
Additional human uses for this plant include treatment for rheumatism and malarial fever from a concentrated extract used in sweat-baths, and root and berry teas that were used to treat dysentery, colic, dizziness, and stomachaches. The berries have been made into both jelly and wine.
This rapidly growing shrub is an excellent plant for landscape use, especially in large yards. It is best utilized as a background border plant or in solitary plantings with plenty of space, as it is usually about 5 feet in diameter. American Beautyberry is commercially available, especially the white berried form. However, to preserve genetic strains local to an area, this plant is easily rooted from the softwood of the stems in May through June or can be germinated easily from seed in the fall. The berries can be immediately planted in the fall to allow for spring germination. The berries can also be harvested to collect seeds to plant later. Place the berries in a blender with five times the volume of water. Pulse on low to loosen the berry pulp from the seeds. The pulp will float and the seeds should sink; remove the pulp and repeat until the seeds are clean. The dried seeds can be stored until planting.
American Beautyberry is a relatively maintenance-free shrub requiring no fertilizer and capable of surviving droughts. It is free of many pests and resistant to diseases that plague other landscape plants.
Heather Sullivan is Heritage Botanist at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.