Over the last twenty-plus years, I’ve been adding small trees and shrubs to my landscape with two main goals: increased beauty and improved wildlife habitat. Every plant I’ve added meets one or both of these objectives, including this native shrub — American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
This shrub, native to moist woodland edges and pine woods throughout the southeast, will usually grow 3-5 feet tall, but it’s been known to get as tall as 9 feet. I’d guess that mine is about six feet tall. Its habit is loose and open, and the leaves are rather large, arranged oppositely each other in pairs on the stems. It does well at the back of a border or mixed in with other understory plants in naturalized areas, where it goes unnoticed until this time of year, when the fruits light up my woodland.
On my plant, neon-magenta fruits (technically, drupes) as shiny as Mardi Gras beads grow in big clusters around the branch stems at the leaf axils. I’ve read that fruit color in the species varies from more violet and pink shades to the electrifying magenta of my plant, and you can also find white-fruited forms. I like the way the fruit clusters on my specimen light up the forest edge, where it thrives at the bottom of a hill.
You’ll often see recommendations to cut this shrub back to no more than a foot tall in late winter to help you maintain a moderate-sized shrub. This works, but my recommendation is to site plants with their mature size in mind, allowing them to grow into their designated space without exceeding it.
Birds are supposed to like the fruits. My references say they are favored by Northern Bobwhites, American Robins, Cardinals, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, and Brown Thrashers, among others. However, in my yard, they are a food of last resort, usually shriveling into raisin-like clusters by late winter before they are finally consumed.
White-tailed Deer are supposed to eat the leaves of this shrub with moderate enthusiasm, but I’ve never noticed any signs of deer browsing on my specimen. They’re also supposed to favor the fruit clusters after leaf fall, but again, I’ve seen no evidence of that in my yard. Raccoon and Opossums are also supposed to like the fruits. Maybe my shrub has particularly bad-tasting fruits, because I’ve seen no signs of their nibbling either.
My many-branched shrub produces excellent fruit crops in all but the most severe drought years. Here’s a shot that gives you a better idea of fruit spacing along the branches:
The apparent unpopularity of the fruits with the wildlife in my yard frees me of any guilt when I cut a few branches to display in the house. Paired with short evergreen magnolia branches and a few late flowers, the berried branches add pizzazz to indoor autumn arrangements.
In my opinion, this easy-going native shrub should adorn more Piedmont yards. Its low-maintenance requirements, tolerance of many soils and levels of shade, and its electrifying autumn fruits will brighten any landscape.