Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
The first time that I saw a beautyberry bush, I thought that it couldn’t possibly be real. Shiny lavender berries don’t happen in nature. They have to be fake. But it turns out that they do occur naturally. And they are an important food source for birds in the winter.
What is Beautyberry?
Beautyberry, which is also known as Callicarpa, is a deciduous shrub that is related to mints. The two most common varieties grown here in the US are Callicarpa americana which is native to North America and C. bodinieri which is native to China. C. americana is grown in warmer parts of the US because it is only hardy through zone 7. C. bodinieri is more cold hardy and can be grown as far north as zone 5.
Both are medium size shrubs, growing 6 to 9 feet tall with an equal width. They prefer full sun but will tolerate light shade. When grown in the shade, the bushes tend to be more leggy. Once established, they are drought tolerant. They are also not bothered by disease or insect pests. They do not need to be fertilized.
The flowers emerge in late summer. They range in color from pink to purple. Bees and butterflies find them irresistible.
In the fall, the leaves of C. americana turn yellow while the leaves of C. bodinieri turn brown. The leaves fall from the shrubs in late fall revealing the purple berries. The berries will survive the frost. They last until late winter when they begin to shrivel. This is when you will most likely see birds eating them. The berries have an astringent flavor so the birds will avoid eating them until all of their other food sources have been exhausted.
Are Beautyberry Berries Edible?
Because of their astringent flavor, most people don't eat them like other berries, either fresh or cooked into pastries. The berries can be made in wines and jellies. The fermentation process of wine removes the astringency and the sugar in the jellies offsets the sharp taste.
How to Prune Beautyberry
Beautyberry shrubs bloom on new wood meaning that the flower buds will develop on the current year’s growth. Shrubs that bloom on old wood develop their flower buds on last year’s growth and must be pruned after they bloom. Beautyberry shrubs can be pruned in late winter. They can take a hard pruning which means that you can cut the shrubs down to only 6 to 12 inches high.
The size of the shrubs and the number of berries they bear are determined by how you prune. If you don’t prune your shrub or only prune lightly just to give it a nice shape, the shrub will be smaller, but it will have more berries. The berries will be produced along the entire length of the branches. If you give your shrub a hard pruning, taking it down to 12 inches or less, the shrub will be larger but only have berries along the ends of its branches.
In the far northern part of the growing range of C. bodinieri, there is no need to prune because the plants naturally die back to the ground. In the spring, new growth will emerge from the roots.
How to Use Beautyberry in Your Landscape
Beautyberry shrubs have several uses in the landscape. Because of their compact size, they can be used as a back of the border plant bringing color in the winter to your garden. Or you can grow a single specimen shrub for a burst of color in your yard. Or you can plant several shrubs together to provide a spectacular mass of color in the winter. Another good reason to mass your beautyberry is because this will increase the pollination rate of the flowers resulting in more berries.
How to Grow Beautyberry From Seed
You can grow beautyberry from seed. You want to start the seed in early summer, 12 to 16 weeks before your first frost. Be sure to soak the seed for 24 hours ahead of time. Soaking the seeds softens the hard seed coats which will result in better germination. The seeds have hard coats so that they will survive the trip through birds’ digestive systems. Each plant has a strategy for spreading its seeds. The beautyberry depends on birds. The birds eat the berries. The seeds pass through their digestive systems and are excreted in the birds’ stool far away from the original shrub.
After soaking the seeds, plant them a mere 1/16th inch deep, just lightly covered. Keep them somewhere cool, preferably 40⁰F. Germination should occur within a month. Your seedlings will be ready to be transplanted into their new homes three months after you planted the seeds. Plant them at least 4 feet apart. Water your seedlings well when you plant them. Once planted, they will not need to be watered again unless you are having an exceptionally dry summer and fall. In that case, you will need to give them 1 inch of water per week.
How to Grow Beautyberry From Cuttings
The most common way to propagate beautyberry is from cuttings. Take your cuttings in early summer in the morning. Cut 4 to 6 inches off the ends of branches that are green and soft and do not have buds or flowers. Strip the leaves from the lower third of your cuttings. Make sure to leave some leaves at the top. They are needed to sustain the cuttings while the roots are growing.
Dip the end of your cutting in rooting hormone. Rooting hormone can be purchased at your local nursery. It is a powder that contains natural or synthetic plant hormones that encourages the growth of roots. It is a way of speeding up the process of root formation. You can root cuttings without rooting hormone, but it will take longer.
Plant the cuttings in a container ⅓ to ½ the length of the entire stem. Water the soil and mist the cuttings. Place a plastic bag secured with a rubber band over the container to act as a greenhouse. Put the plastic covered container in indirect light in a warm spot. The ideal temperature for root formation is 70⁰F to 75⁰F. Keep the soil moist and the cuttings misted. You can check to see if roots have formed by lightly tugging on the cuttings. I don’t care for that method because it could damage the fragile developing roots. I just watch the cuttings. When they start to develop new growth, I know that they now have roots. Without roots, they cannot produce new foliage. You can remove the plastic bag after the roots have developed.
Once the roots have developed and your seedlings are producing new growth, you can transplant your new plants into your garden spacing them at least 4 feet apart.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can I grow Beautyberry cuttings in a jar with water?
Answer: Woody cuttings (woody meaning from trees and shrubs) are very difficult to root. I honestly don't know if you can root them in water like you can with herbaceous cuttings (cuttings from non-woody plants). Personally, I NEVER root anything in water. One of the things that I learned during Master Gardener training is that if you root a cutting in water, when you transplant it into soil, you will severely damage or even destroy the fragile roots. That's why so many cuttings die after being transplanted. Cuttings, whether woody or herbaceous, should always be started in soil or a soil-less mix. That way when you are ready to transplant, you move the entire ball of soil that surrounds the roots so that the roots are not disturbed.
Question: Can I plant beautyberry seeds in the ground? If so, when? I'm in Zone 8b.
Answer: Yes, you can plant beautyberry seeds directly in the ground. The best time to plant them is when the berries have ripened. Remove the seeds from the berries and plant them very shallowly. Then be very patient. Because you won't be cold stratifying them, the seeds will be on their natural schedule of germinating the following spring. The cold winter temperatures trigger the seeds to germinate in the spring. This is an adaptation so that the young seedlings will have the entire growing season to grow and mature. If the seeds germinated the same year that they were produced, the tiny seedlings wouldn't survive the winter.
© 2018 Caren White
Caren White (author) on October 03, 2018:
Donna, I have never seen a beautyberry drop its berries and make a mess. My guess wou look d be that the birds eat all or modt of the berries.
Donna Herron from USA on October 03, 2018:
Great article! We're looking to revamp our landscaping and the Beautyberry looks like an interesting plant to add to our garden. But do the berries fall off at some point and make a mess on the ground? Thanks!
Debbie Anastassiou from Perth Western Australia on October 02, 2018:
Beautiful exposition on most attractive and appropiately named plant, I had never encountered.
Caren White (author) on October 02, 2018:
You will love beautyberry! And so will the birds.
RTalloni on October 02, 2018:
Thank you for this introduction to beautyberry. Am looking to incorporate more fall/winter showy plants.