Beautyberry and its Many, Many Uses
American beautyberry, or callicarpa americana, is one of my family’s favorite plants. Not only does it live up to its name, but it actually grows naturally in our yard. What really makes it special is that it is the only beautyberry in our neighborhood and in a spot that you would not think it would normally grow: in the metal lattice holding up our mailbox, between our drive and a small brick wall. Because of this, we call it a blessing from God. So when I saw its leaves growing back in, I knew exactly what I wanted to discuss this month. Turns out, not only is the beautyberry nice to look at, it has some really interesting uses for medicine and pest control to boot.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk about what the actual plant looks like. The beautyberry is a fairly large shrub that can get anywhere from five to eight feet high at its largest. It has bright green leaves that sprout out from the core of the plant on long, thin branches. During the early Summer, you can expect to see clumps of small pastel flowers which turn into vibrant purple berries after a series of weeks. There is also a variant with pure white berries if purple isn’t your color. The berries are here to stay once they show up. The berries stay on the branches even as the rest of the plant prepares to go dormant for Winter. As a bonus, animals don’t tend to eat them unless they are desperate as the berries are quite bitter.
While it is natural to find the bushes in little colonies in the wild, you might be wondering how to get your own. If you know a friend that you can get a cutting from, you can try propagating the plant by dipping the tip in root growth hormone and then placing it in freshly potted soil. Then leave the pot in a humid area that gets a good amount of light (Heber). An alternate, if a more labor-intensive way to get the plant to grow is to propagate by seed. It involves removing the seeds from the berries of the plant, drying them until ready for use, then rehydrating them right before planting. For a more in-depth guide, I found an article explaining both methods thoroughly, which could help you on your journey to getting free beautyberry. Just follow the link or check the cited sources below to see more. If the methods listed are too complicated or you are like me and have little luck propagating plants, you could always find them by looking at nurseries.
Beautyberry grows best in the Southeastern US and is usually found in wooded areas. They like humidity and a good amount of sunlight. They are hardy and according to the US Dept. of Agriculture, it is even “very tolerant to fire” if that is something that is somehow a problem for you (Brakie 1). Because of its ability to survive, you can harshly cut it back without much worry. It will come back as long as you leave at least a foot of branches from the base of the plant. Since berries only appear on new growth, this is something that we do with our beautyberry every year. If you choose not to cut it back, beautyberry can get fairly large: up to eight feet in all directions.
So with all the information about how to find, grow, and care for the plant, what is there left to talk about? Quite a lot, actually. Beautyberry has an interesting background in medicine and has current applications as well, though in different ways. Several native American tribes used the plant to cure several ailments such as “malarial fevers, rheumatism, sour stomach and dysentery” (Borgen and Kirk-Ballard). Studies into how effective the plant is at curing these things are incomplete, but we do know that the plant is absolutely loaded with potential. To use scientific terminology for a moment, many “pharmacologically active components and numerous extracts” found in the plant could be used to create new medicines or simplify the creation of current ones, if more research was done to study the plant (Jones and Kinghorn).
But medicine and looks aren’t the only things that beautyberry has going for it. It has been a longtime folk solution for keeping bugs away. People in the southeastern United States have claimed for over a century that rubbing the leaves on your skin would keep mosquitoes from biting you, so scientists wanted to prove that fact by running some more tests (University Of Mississippi). They quickly discovered that not only did the plant deter insects, but it did so extremely well. It contains three separate chemicals that are safer and possibly even more effective than leading alternatives such as DEET (University Of Mississippi). One of the chemicals, callicarpenol, is even named after the plant. If a method of harvesting those chemicals was invented that was efficient enough to allow for widespread use, it could revolutionize the industry, though that dream is still a distant one.
Before this article reaches its end, I would like to mention one final use for beautyberry: jam. According to many, it has a taste similar to elderberry if prepared well as opposed to its normal taste which is generally regarded as bitter and unappetizing. Some may think that the berries are poisonous thanks to its bright colors and bad taste, but it is actually safe to eat. So if you pass by a fruit-bearing beautyberry and the mood strikes you, go ahead and see if it is for you. Personally, I will believe the reviews.
Borgen, Richard, and Heather Kirk-Ballard. “American Beautyberry: a True American Native.” LSU AgCenter, LSU College of Agriculture, 23 Aug. 2019, www.lsuagcenter.com/profiles/rbogren/articles/page1566574276226.
Brakie, Malinda. “Plant Fact Sheet for American Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana).” Plants.usa.gov, USDA - Natural Resources Conservation Services, Sept. 2010, plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_caam2.pdf.
Heber, Gretchen. “How to Propagate American Beautyberry Bushes.” Gardener's Path, Ask the Experts LLC, 27 Mar. 2021, gardenerspath.com/how-to/propagation/beautyberries/.
Jones, William P, and A Douglas Kinghorn. “BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE NATURAL PRODUCTS OF THE GENUS CALLICARPA.” Current bioactive compounds vol. 4,1 (2008): 15-32. doi:10.2174/157340708784533393
University Of Mississippi. "Scientists Confirm Folk Remedy Repels Mosquitoes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 July 2006. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/07/060703091932.htm.