If you aren’t already familiar with beautyberry, you probably won’t forget this plant once you see it laden with fruit.
Throughout the summer, it’s a fairly nondescript, sprawling shrub with elliptical, green leaves and small, whitish or pinkish flowers. But in the fall, beautyberry transforms itself, producing an abundance of vividly colored fruits in clusters along the stems. These berries are a startling shade of magenta or purple, and they make the plant fairly jump out from the landscape. Even after beautyberry’s leaves drop in the winter, the colorful fruits persist on the branches — unless they’re eaten by raccoons, opossums, squirrels, foxes, or armadillos, or by a variety of songbirds.
A member of the Mint Family, beautyberry is one of some 165 species of Callicarpa, a group of shrubs and small trees, most of which occur in Asia. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), our native Lowcountry species, is found throughout the southeastern U.S. in woods and bottomlands, and along the edges of swamps and thickets. It’s also a popular garden plant, along with several related, introduced species, including a few cultivars that have white berries.
American beautyberry has a long history of use in folk medicine. The roots, leaves, and fruits were used to make various decoctions to treat fever, malaria, dysentery, rheumatism, colic, and many other ailments. I’ve never been tempted to sample the berries, but sources report they are edible, though astringent and not particularly tasty. They’re said to make a good jelly, though, and there are lots of recipes on the internet.
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The berries can also be used as a fabric dye.
The most promising use of American beautyberry may be as an insect repellent. Crushing the leaves and applying them to the skin has long been a traditional field remedy for relief against biting insects. Recently, scientists at the National Center for Natural Products Research, based at the University of Mississippi, have extracted several substances — callicarpenal, intermedeol, borneol, and spathulenol – that are key in producing this effect.
Research continues on toxicity levels, as well as cost-effective methods for producing a callicarpenal-based insect repellent for commercial markets.