Plant This: American beautyberry, a beauty of a bush


American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana ) is one of my favorite harbingers of autumn. At the point in a typical Austin summer when you think you just can’t take the heat and humidity anymore—about now, actually, though this summer has been atypically cool—this understory shrub goes all purple on you and gives hope that fall isn’t too far off.

Native to the southern U.S., as far west as central Texas, this deciduous shrub looks gorgeous in the back of a border, where it can grow to 6 or 7 feet tall and wide. Though it can handle drought, it prefers a little extra water. In Austin, I’ve seen it growing wild in the woods of St. Edward’s Park along Bull Creek.


Mine grows behind the front-garden fence along the driveway, where it gets afternoon shade and probably has worked its roots into the French drain my husband installed years ago. As you can see, it has gotten huge and is threatening to take over this little sitting area. I can’t cut it back now though, because the berries are just too beautiful to lose. I’ll have to remember to prune it over the winter.

Carol, I want you to know that I’m going to paint this bench purple sometime this fall, to play off the color of the beautyberries. If I helped inspire you to paint your bench, so you’ve inspired me to paint mine.


Although my boring white bench isn’t making me sing, this ‘Duchess of Albany’ clematis certainly is. I love the way it twines delicately through the wand-like stems of the beautyberry, its purplish-pink flowers complementing the purple berries.


The berries are purpling by degrees. Many are still apple green, like these.


But as the days grow shorter, the berries grow more vibrant. Soon autumn will return, washing the skies bright blue, drying and cooling the air. Soon after that, the beautyberries will feed the mockingbirds, and the bush will lose its drama.

But that’s OK. Nothing lasts forever. Not even summer in Austin.


Clematis texensis ‘Duchess of Albany’


A damselfly posing on a beautyberry leaf

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

25 Responses

  1. Tethys says:

    Love the pics of the American beautyberry. Several years ago on a trip to Hamilton Pool I saw some of it out there and thought it was very pretty but never did know what the name of it was until now.

    Thanks for commenting, Tethys. I love finding “garden plants” growing in the wild. Hamilton Pool is such a beautiful hiking area too. —Pam

  2. chuck b. says:

    I’ve had a crush on Callicarpa americana since I saw it in Fine Gardening last year. Very nice!

    Is it hardy in San Francisco, Chuck? Maybe the real trick would be keeping it small enough for your space? —Pam

  3. Carol says:

    What goes around comes around! I’m happy to have inspired you after you inspired me. I think there are cultivars of Beautyberry that are hardy in zone 5, maybe I need to find room for one in my garden?

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

    My mother has a more cold-hardy variety in her Tulsa garden that looks similar but doesn’t get as big. Actually, I think she keeps it in a pot. —Pam

  4. Colleen says:

    Ooh..I love Beautyberry! Even the green berries are pretty. We northerners do have hardy cultivars available to us. Callicarpa bodnieri and C. dichotoma are both hardy, but bodnieri is more like a perennial than a shrub…you’re supposed to chop it back hard each spring.

    I absolutely love that clematis! The shape and color of those blooms are just to die for.

    Thanks for the beautyberry info for northern gardeners, Colleen! —Pam

  5. bill says:

    I planted a beautyberry last fall and thought it had died. But it came back up during the spring rains. So I planted a second one a couple months ago near the pipe where our “grey water” exits. (that’s the water from the clothes washer). They are not as big as yours – only about 2 x 2. Haven’t noticed berries yet. I will go check again this morning. The deer munch a little on the first one but haven’t ever found the second one.

    Bill, it sounds like you have placed yours well. Mine stayed fairly small for the first couple of years, and then it had an explosion of growth. It’s about five years old now and quite large. —Pam

  6. That’s an inspired combination, Pam – two great plants complementing each other! The berries on my Beautyberry are still all green, but the rain has made the branches grow huge. The purple bench will be fun.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Do the birds eat all your beautyberries too, Annie? —Pam

  7. Pam, last year the berries were all gone within 2 weeks of turning purple! So it wasn’t a long show.
    Luckily, I like Mockingbirds as much as I like Beautyberry.

    Annie

    I do too. —Pam

  8. Oh no, don’t talk about autumn yet! I’d like summer to continue for a looooooong time yet. :-) The callicarpa does very well over here too and I love the colour of those berries. The Duchess of Albany goes very well with the callicarpa and I can’t wait to see this again next year with your bench painted over in purple. A technicolour garden dream, don’t you think? ;-)

    If talking about it could make autumn come faster, I’d do nothing but cry, “Fall! Fall! Fall!” However, we’ll probably have summer with us until mid-October. Perhaps you will too. :-)

    If I get the bench painted before the mockingbirds feast, I’ll post another picture of the technicolor garden dream for you, YE. —Pam

  9. Layanee says:

    I love the purple beautyberry and have several although here, zone 5b, they often die to the ground and the species I have is dichotoma. Since it dies back it only reaches four feet or so but it has a graceful shape and the berries are not to be believed! Pam, I would take a berry to the paint store so you get the exact color! Can’t wait to see that project completed!

    That’s a good idea, Layanee. However, I already have purple trim on my house, so I’ll probably use the same color, though it isn’t quite as pink as the beautyberries. —Pam

  10. The birds ate my Beauty Berries quickly in Hawaii. I certainly have not seen any of them up here in the mountains growing naturally, yet? Good to know there are hardier species to choose from. I’m trying to settle on having a 5b zone as an initial guide to what will grow here.

    But you just can’t tell. The patch of Gladiola that the resident gardeners have never dug up and stored for the winter are blooming like crazy and multiplying prolificallly.

    It’s nice that you have the experience of the resident gardeners to help you get a feel for your new gardening zone. —Pam

  11. Diana says:

    Pam-What an amazing beautyberry. And I laughed out loud when I read your blog tonight about the harbingers of fall!!! Ah – the grass IS always greener on the other side of the fence. Your photos are stunning – what kind of camera do you use and are you using a macro lense? It certainly didn’t feel like fall today.

    Thanks, Diana. I use a Canon Powershot A-80, and yes, for the close-ups I use the macro lens. —Pam

  12. entangled says:

    There are some beautyberries growing wild along a path I used to walk in a nearby park. I haven’t been there for a while though, so don’t know if the berries are ripening yet. The color is just amazing. I wonder if they ripen sooner in the south? I need to go check on them.

    I would guess that they’d ripen later in the South, but perhaps not. I’d be curious to know. —Pam

  13. kate says:

    Hi Pam – I love the colour of the beautyberries. I had not heard of them before. Here we try and pretend that autumn won’t be approaching … the harbinger of long, cold months of snow.

    What a beauty of a dragonfly. I’ve always loved them and get a big thrill when they hang out in the yard.

    I always try to pretend that summer won’t be coming. ;-) Like you, Kate, I love dragonflies. I saw a gigantic red one today, but alas, no camera. —Pam

  14. Connie says:

    Your beautyberry bush is gorgeous! Also enjoyed the photo of the dragonfly…we rarely see them where I live, but would gladly trade for the millions of paper wasps flying about this time of year.

    My garden is home to a lot of wasps as well. So long as they build their nests away from the house, I tolerate them because they’re beneficial to the garden. Wish I could send you some dragonflies, though. —Pam

  15. I wish I could grow beautyberry! What a gorgeous bush. With global warming and all I am tempted to try one, they are rated to zone 5, I am in zone 4, it is a southern zone 4.

    Maybe in a very protected location you could have one? Let me know how it works out, if you try one. —Pam

  16. Is this the earliest that the beautyberry has ever turned color for you? I was surprised to see some Chinese chives about to flower…they usually flower in September with the oxblood lilies.

    Last year I posted on July 26 that the berries were turning, although I noted that it seemed early. I’d say this is about average. By the way, I’ve noticed that one of my oxblood lilies has sprouted some foliage! —Pam

  17. Chris says:

    I’ve never had success with clematis. What are the light and growing conditions for the Duchess of Albany? It looks wonderful.

    This one was sold to me as a hybridized native clematis by the Natural Gardener nursery in Austin. It grows in morning sun, afternoon shade, with its roots well shaded by the beautyberry bush. It doesn’t get much extra water, unless it has its roots in the French drain too. One caveat: it does brown up significantly several times each summer, but it always refoliates and reblooms without me doing anything about it. Not a good choice, perhaps, for a main focal point, but otherwise fine. I like that this vine stays very small (4′) and doesn’t try to rule the world. —Pam

  18. Pam says:

    Your beautyberry looks gorgeous – ours still has green berries on them, and I agree – they brighten up this time of year. The purple bench will look great next to it!

    Thanks for the encouragement, Pam. I’ll show it again after I paint it, though I’ll wait for cooler weather. —Pam

  19. ScrappyNana says:

    I’ve thouroughly enjoyed reading your blog this morning. Your photos are fantastic.

    Well, thanks, Scrappy Nana! I’m glad you stopped by. —Pam

  20. Betty says:

    I have a huge beautyberry in my beach backyard on the South Carolina coast, but I did not know what it was called. I was told it was a knotberry bush but it looks just like yours and not like the knotberry bushes I have seen on line. It is so easy to take care of and survived renters in our beach house with many years of neglect and wild vines growing all over it. With a little TLC last year it came back over 7 feet tall this year. Thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures. I do have one question, are the berries dangerous for dogs to eat?

    Thanks for your comment, Betty. I don’t know whether beautyberries are poisonous to dogs. All I know is that birds find them tasty. Enjoy your purple berries! —Pam

  21. Vicki says:

    Thanks for the great pictures. I have a bush in my backyard that just came up voluntarily this year next to my fence. I live in northeast Tx. I didn’t know what it was and my husband even asked if I wanted him to cut it down! I said not to because the birds probably ate the berries. It is about eight feet tall and about that wide. I decided to look on the internet to see if I could find out what it is and your website did it. Thanks.

    You’ve got a biggie, but isn’t it wonderfully beautiful when in berry? I’m so glad you wrote to tell me how you found my site. Thanks! —Pam

  22. Deborah Gregson says:

    I’d like mine to look like yours again. I’ve never known how to prune it, so it has a few large ‘trunks’ and few thin branches with fewer leaves. The berries are always bright purple, but when we first got it at the Outer Banks 16 years ago as an anniversary gift for ourselves (we plant a new bush or tree each year to celebrate)it looked so much better. Any suggestions for revitalizing it?

    What a nice way to remember your anniversary. If you stop pruning it, I bet you’ll see new sprouts from the base of the plant. Let those grow into long, arching stems, and over time your bush will fill out again. The only pruning it really needs is when stems cross and rub against each other, but it looks best in its natural form. —Pam

  23. Goody 4 Paws says:

    I live in the East Tennessee Valley near Knoxville. My very good friend has long grown purple beautyberry in her yard here. It is beautiful indeed, and I have attempted to start the plants from her seeds in a pot in my garden window. They did indeed sprout, but are ever so tiny (about 4 inches high). Should I be trying a different approach or are they just slow to start? The tiny plant I have coaxed out of the dirt has been in its pot for almost a year now. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    I haven’t grown beautyberry from seed, but Jill Nokes’s reference How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest says: “American Beauty-berry can be produced by sowing the cleaned seeds lightly in a greenhouse kept just above 40 degrees in November. They will germinate in January and February, and are ready to plant outside under shade by April. . . . American Beauty-berry will make a salable one-gallon container in 4 months. Seedlings require partial shade to thrive. In full sun, they become susceptible to spider mites.” I hope that helps, Goody 4 Paws. —Pam

  24. Chris says:

    I am so glad that I found this post! I have this bush growing wild through my back property. My wife and I loved it so much, that we had hoped to be able to plant some around the house. (Though we didn’t know if it was poisonous.) I feel quite lucky, to have it growing so abundantly, among the blackberries, dew berries, and trees of our woods.

    Chris

    You ARE lucky, Chris. American beautyberry is such a lovely, native shrub. Thanks for commenting, and enjoy watching your berries purple up. —Pam

  25. Hi Pam,
    I think it was Rose who told me the beautyberry bush can get pretty large when I wrote that I was thinking about moving 1 of my 2 or 3 year old ones. This post came up when I was looking at images doing a search to see how big they get. I wonder if they get as large here. Ours die back to the ground each year. Do yours?

    I like your white bench. Is it purple now? How’s the bush doing?

    Hi, Sue. This is American beautyberry, which can get quite large here in Austin: about 6 feet by 6 feet. It is deciduous but does not die back to the ground or require any cutting back. I know there are many other varieties, so perhaps those that grow best in Nebraska stay smaller? —Pam

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