The Belle of the Fall
Purple clusters of beautyberries provide a late-year buffet for wildlife.
Amid the russet and gold hues of autumn leaves and the luscious crimson of possumhaw and holly berries, the beautyberry lives up to its name. At first glance, you’ll stop in your tracks and ask, “Wow! What is that purple berry?”
Shish-kebabbed on the draping branches of this large (3 to 5 feet tall and wide) shrub are globes of tightly packed magenta berries, making the plant easy to identify in the Central and East Texas landscapes where this native grows. In East Texas, Callicarpa americana is called French mulberry; in New Orleans, it’s known as Spanish mulberry.
Even after the leaves drop, the berries remain to provide winter food for dozens of birds such as mockingbirds, robins, summer tanagers and more, plus many foraging mammals and rodents.
If you want to cultivate beautyberry in your suburban yard, be aware that white-tailed deer seem to decimate it in neighborhoods, though it seems to escape similar danger in the wild. Sometimes deer are found bedding in beautyberry, lending credence to claims that it has a natural repellent against fire ants and mosquitoes. In 2006, scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed this belief when they discovered three repellent chemicals in beautyberry leaves: callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol.
Humans can consume the berries, though they aren’t particularly tasty fresh off the branch, so most prefer to use them to make jelly or wine. Native Americans used all parts of the plant for teas used to cure colic, dysentery, itchy skin, rheumatism and malaria.
Beautyberries are far less conspicuous earlier in the year, but butterflies and bees find their way to the clusters of tiny pale blossoms that begin to show in spring. Sometimes you’ll find blossoms, early green berries and ripe berries on the same branch. In times of drought, the long green leaves can turn yellow and drop off the plant.
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
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