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American Beautyberry (What Time is it in Nature)

November 8, 2014

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science intern at Prairie Ridge!  Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology and is minoring in Environmental Toxicology.  She has spent her semester at Prairie Ridge developing walks for our Citizen Science Saturday series and educational programs and materials for our future pollinator garden.

Fall has arrived at Prairie Ridge and the abundance of oranges, yellows, and reds are in full swing. Amongst the fall backdrop one plant presents its striking purple berries, the American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana.

American beautyberry

American Beautyberry is a perennial shrub in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) that grows anywhere from 3-10 feet in height. The light green leaves are oval in shape with a blunt tip and serrated margins. They grow in groups of two or three on the branches and turn a stunning shade of yellowy green in the fall. The bark of the plant is smooth and studded with lenticels, raised pores that allow for gas exchange. Younger plants exhibit reddish-brown bark while that of older plants turn light brown in color.

American Beautyberry blooms from late spring to early summer. The small clusters of flowers only appear on new growth between the leaves and can range in color from light blue, to violet, pink, or white. The most impressive characteristic of this plant though is in its fruit. After the leaves have dropped, around August or September, the Beautyberry reveals its showy clusters of small purple to blue berries, called drupes. Each berry is about 4-5 mm in diameter and contains two to four seeds. These berries will last well into the winter and are an important survival food source for wildlife such as birds, foxes, opossum, raccoons, squirrels, and deer. In return, these animals help to disperse the seeds of the plant for future propagation.

The native range of the American Beautyberry spreads as far west as Texas to Maryland in the east and south to Florida. Other native areas for the American Beautyberry include the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, northern Mexico, and the West Indies. The shrub grows best in moist soils, such as woody regions, coastal plains, or swamp edges, and can withstand a wide pH range. It prefers climates with hot and humid summers and mild winters, and grows best in full sun, but can handle some shade. In addition, the plant is tolerant to drought, cold, heat, and even fire. Regular pruning should be maintained in order to encourage new growth for maximum fruit production. In the winter to early spring, prune the plant to about 12” above the base.

There is a long history of using the American Beautyberry for medicinal purposes. Native Americans used the roots, leaves, and branches of the plant to treat malarial fever and rheumatism. They also used the roots to combat dizziness, stomach aches, and dysentery, and made a concoction out of the berries and roots to reduce colic. It has also been found that the leaves of the American Beautyberry contain at least two compounds, callicarpenal and intermedeol, that repel mosquitos. Farmers would crush the leaves of the plant then place them on their horses and mules (as well as themselves) to fend off biting bugs such as mosquitos. Current research is being conducted on this use of the plant. Another great usage for the berries is in making jellies and wine, however due to the astringent properties of the berries it is best not to consume them raw.

American Beautyberry is a wonderful prairie plant, and as the name implies, the berries are a sight to see! If you would like to check out the American Beautyberry in action, come out to Prairie Ridge and observe the plethora of wildlife that these shrubs attract. Two fine examples are located in the field near the Outdoor Classroom and are currently booming with birds, quite a spectacular sight to see!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2014 5:07 pm

    Love this post. I recently saw my first American Beautyberry bush at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was a beautyberry bush right outside the Oconoluftee Visitor Center. It had an amazing number of berry clusters on each stem.

    • November 12, 2014 12:43 pm

      So glad you enjoyed the post! I’ll let Terra know. Aren’t they beautiful plants? I think they’re really lovely.

  2. jim merrithew permalink
    October 2, 2016 7:59 pm

    Many shrubs in front of my daughter’s dormitory in CT. Very beautiful

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