Rain Garden Plants: Callicarpa americana 

Sarah A. White, Clemson University
 Terasa Lott, Clemson Extension Service
April 2017

Beautyberry flowers and berries
Figure 1. Beautyberry flowers and berries
Yellow fall color of leaves, contrasted with bright purple berries
Figure 2. Yellow fall color of leaves, contrasted with bright purple berries

Rain gardens are small-scale stormwater best management practices that protect water quality while also adding beauty to the landscape and providing wildlife habitat. Callicarpa americana, from the verbena (Verbenaceae) family, is a native plant well-suited for full sun to partial shade rain gardens.  The genus name Callicarpa stems from the Greek word callos, which means beauty and carpos, which means fruit. Its common names include American beautyberry, French mulberry, and sourbush. Although deciduous, this shrub’s graceful form and magenta berry clusters help maintain winter interest in a dormant rain garden. 

History and Traditions

The roots and leaves of Callicarpa americana were used by members of various Native American tribes for medicinal purposes to treat both fever and rheumatism2.  During the early 20th century, farmers used the crushed leaves of American Beautyberry to repel mosquitoes and biting bugs both on livestock and themselves. Studies conducted by the Agricultural Research Service determined two compounds callicarpenal and intermedeol were responsible for the repellant characteristic of American beautyberry leaves3.

Benefits

In the fall, American beautyberry creates a spectacular fruiting display of masses of bright magenta berries that persist for a short time (September in the low-country of SC to late October in the upstate of SC) after leaves have dropped from the branches.  Berries are either consumer by birds or shrivel and become less noticeable.

American beautyberry is considered a valuable wildlife food plant for birds, pollinators, and mammals.  The long-lasting fruits provide food well into the winter months when other food sources are unavailable. Over forty species of birds consume the high moisture content berries including Bobwhite quail, Mockingbird, American Robin, Brown Thrasher, Purple Finch, and Eastern Towhee1-3.  In some regions leaves are attractive to white-tailed deer and are snacked on over the spring and summer1.  Other animals that eat the fruit include armadillos, raccoons, gray fox, and opossums2.

Planting and Care

American beautyberry is an excellent plant choice for full sun or part-shade rain gardens.  When grown in partial shade, the foliage tends to be a deeper green compared to a yellow-green color when grown in full sun.  The best beautyberry show occurs when planted in masses in a sunny location with adequate moisture.  Beautyberry is easy to propagate via seed (no pretreatment needed) and volunteer plants germinate regularly in the landscape.  Routine maintenance to remove “volunteer” seedlings may be needed in formal design settings.

Beautyberry can be hard-pruned (12” above base in late winter/early spring) to encourage a more compact, yet natural-looking growth form.  If a more natural look is desired, flowers and fruiting are also excellent when grown with minimal pruning.  Though drought tolerant, beautyberry leaves may drop under a prolonged summer drought.

Table 1. Plant preferred site conditions

Light: Full sun to light (dappled) shade

Zones: 6 - 11

Origin: USA

Type: Deciduous shrub

Moisture: Low moisture requirement once established.

Soil: Tolerant of a range of soil conditions: calcareous to acid, sandy to clay. Prefers acidic, clay soils.

Garden Design

Beautyberry is a tall deciduous shrub and is best used as a back-of-the-border species and planted in masses. Fruiting and flowering are enhanced when sited in sunnier conditions. Fruit display may also be enhanced if planted in sweeping masses rather than as a single specimen.  Beautyberry grows natively in deciduous and pine forests, as well as in thickets, right of ways, and along fence rows.

Companion Plants:

Small trees:

River birch (Betula nigra): textured, exfoliating bark, delicate appearance, sun

Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus): white clouds of delicate flowers hand below newly emerging foliage in late spring, sun to part shade

Ozark witch hazel or witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis or H. virginiana): red, yellow, or orange flowers in mid- to late-winter or early spring, full sun to part shade

Shrubs:

Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenia): white flowers spring, red/orange fall color, full sun to part shade

Common winterberry (Ilex verticillata): red or orange berries in fall and winter, full sun to part shade

Table 2. Design considerations - growth habit and plant interest

Height & Width: 5-9’ h x 5-9’ w

Spacing: 4’ – 6’

Growth rate: Moderate to fast Habit: Upright, with long arching branches (lending a “weeping” habit)

Foliage: Yellow-green, fuzzy, coarse textured foliage.

Flower: Light blue, violet, pink or white flowers in June and July.

Fruit: Brilliant magenta fruit (in drupes) circle stems from August to October.

Fall color: Fruit display is the fall attraction; leaves turn golden yellow.

Perennials:

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’): bright golden-yellow flowers with black centers, late spring to fall, full sun

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum): violet-blue flowers summer through fall

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa): orange-yellow flowers during summer, full sun

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis): yellow or red flowers in the early- to mid-spring, full sun – light shade

Eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana): pale blue flowers rise above medium textured foliage in spring, foliage turns yellow in fall, full sun to part shade

Siberian iris (Iris sibirica): white, yellow, purple, and blue flowers in spring, full sun

Ornamental grasses:

Bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus): fluffy, dense seed heads from late summer to fall, full sun to part shade

Sweetgrass or muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris): white or pink blooms provide fall and winter interest, full sun to part shade 

Recommended Cultivars 

Callicarpa americana var. lactea – white berries & flowers.

‘Russell Montgomery’ – attractive white berries.

‘Welch’s Pink’ – pink to lavender colored berrie

References

1 Coladonato, Milo. 1992.  Callicarpa americana.  In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).  Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2011, October 17].

2 Immel, DL. Plant guide for American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center. University of California, Davis, California.

3Brakie, M. 2010. Plant fact sheet for American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, East Texas Plant Materials Center. Nacogdoches, TX, 75964.

4Native Plant Information Network. Callicarpa americana. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  The University of Texas at Austin. Accessed. 15 October 11.

5 Gilman, Ed. 2011. Callicarpa americana American Beautyberry. University of Florida IFAS Extension. FPS90.

All images: S.A. White.

With appreciation to content reviewers, Bob Polomski, Ph.D., Clemson Extension, Amy Dabbs, Clemson Extension, and Janet Litton, Master Gardener
Executive Editor: Katie Buckley, Extension Associate, Clemson Extension Service.

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SC Waterways is an informational series from Clemson Extension's Water Resources Program Team

Katie Buckley, Executive Editor for SC WaterWays and Director, CU Center for Watershed Excellence

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