One of the most unusual and beautiful plants endemic to North America is the American Beautyberry. It grows well in a variety of habitats, including damp thickets, woodlands, wet slopes, rich bottomlands, and swamp edges. They grow best and produce the most berries in full sun but will adapt to partially shaded areas just fine. Reaching a height of five feet and a diameter much the same they are a nice large statement plant for any backyard landscape. Heights of nine feet have been reported under ideal growing conditions, but in most situations, they will not reach that massive size. The tiny white flowers are not particularly showy nor highly fragrant, but many butterflies are still attracted by them and will be found nectaring at the blossoms. The real showy part of this plant comes late in the season when the berries appear. Clusters of waxy, purple, or sometimes white berries develop at the axil points of the leaves along the stem. Once you witness these berries, you will understand how this shrub earned its common name.
Sometimes referred to as the French mulberry or sourberry, which hints at its edibility. Reportedly the raw berries have a somewhat sweet-sour-spicy taste and should be consumed in small amounts as they can cause stomach upset. However, if cooked their complex taste is great in teas, jellies, wines, and other recipes and not known to cause the gastric upset they do in the raw stage. Although, with any native plant small amounts should be consumed to determine your tolerance for it. A concentrate can be made from the berries by boiling equal parts berries and water for 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes. Strain the berries with a fine mesh strainer to separate the skins, and seeds from the juice. Next strain into jars using a finer mesh strainer. Juice can be stored in jars in the refrigerator for up to a month. Or freeze them into ice cubes and store them in the freezer for a much longer period of time. Concentrated juice tastes much like hibiscus roselle tea with a slightly sweet tangy flavor. Concentrated juice can be used for many recipes including jellies, wines, teas, and sorbet.
Native Americans used this plant for medicinal remedies for common ailments. Roots and leaves were used to make a tea for the sweat lodge to treat fevers and rheumatism. A tea for drinking was made from the roots to treat dysentery and stomach aches. Root and berry tea was made to treat colic. Farmers in the early 1900’s used crushed leaves to repel biting insects from their mules and horses. They rubbed the leaves on their skin under the harnesses. It was common for humans to utilize the leaves in the same manner, and in some areas still do today. Scientific studies were conducted by the University of Mississippi to assess the claim that this plant was a natural insect repellent. Their findings showed there was some validity to the power of this plant in warding off ticks, ants, and mosquitoes. If you found yourself outdoors with no insect repellent and this plant was available, it would certainly be worth trying.
Mark Catesbury, born 1683, was an English naturalist and author who spent much of his adult life in the New World studying flora and fauna. On one of his collecting trips to Virginia while visiting his sister, he collected beautyberry and sent specimens back to England. It continues to be grown in European garden landscapes today.
For hundreds of years the beauty, as well as the medicinal and nutritional value this plant possesses has been highly valued among gardeners, herbalists, and naturalists. They are easy to grow and do well in neglected soils, with low rainfall. They provide beautiful color on the fall landscape and are a valuable food source for quail, robins, finches, thrashers, and other native birds. Deer favor the leaves and other mammals, such as foxes, raccoons, armadillos, and squirrels will eat the berries.
Try adding beautyberries to your own yard landscape, you will not be disappointed.