How to Grow and Care for American Beautyberry Shrubs

Callicarpa americana

How, I ask you, HOW can you not immediately fall in love with a plant called “American beautyberry”? Our beloved nation, attractiveness, juicy bits of deliciousness . . . it just makes the heart swell. Here, take a Kleenex.

Close up of purple berries and green leaves of the American beautyberry shrub.
Photo by Gretchen Heber.

The emotive lexicon is well deserved. This large, deciduous shrub is truly beautiful, with long, arching branches bearing large, light green leaves, and clusters of little flowers that morph into green and then brilliant purple berries containing 3-4 seeds each.

The juicy berries are a source of food for more than 40 species of songbirds, including the American (but of course) robin, mockingbirds, woodpeckers and finches. Armadillos, foxes, opossum, squirrels, and raccoons like the berries, too. When desperately hungry, deer will eat the leaves of the plant and they’ll eat the berries after they’ve dropped.

Callicarpa americana or purple American beautyberry shrubs in the late summer with purple berries.
Photo by Gretchen Heber.

Humans can eat the berries, too; they’re said to have a medicinal flavor when eaten raw. They can also be made into jam.  Some people have reported upset stomach after eating the berries, however, so it might be best to try just a few before eating a big ol’ slice of beautyberry pie.

If animals and people don’t eat them all, the berries will persist well into winter, even after the leaves have all fallen.

Incidentally, while we’ve made a big deal about the Americanness of this plant that’s native to the southeastern United States, somehow, SOMEHOW, it’s also been saddled with the nickname “French mulberry.” Puhlease.

American beautyberry is appreciated for its fall interest — bright yellow leaves and, of course, the lovely bb-sized purple berries.

Cultivation and History

Native American tribes used the roots, leaves, and branches to treat malarial fevers and rheumatism. The roots were used to treat dizziness, stomachaches and dysentery. Roots and berries were boiled and drunk to treat colic.

Top down view of a cluster of purple American beautyberry seeds surrounded by four leaves.

In the early 1900s, farmers crushed the leaves and placed them under the harnesses of horses to repel mosquitoes. They also rubbed the crushed leaves on their skin to repel mosquitoes and other biting bugs.

Propagation

From Seed

If growing from seed, soak the seeds in clean, cool water for 24 hours.

Sow seeds 1/16-inch deep in small pots or seedling trays filled with seed-starter potting mix.  Place trays or pots in a warm, sunny area.

Keep the soil lightly moist via a spray-bottle mister until the seedlings are transplant size, about three months after sowing.

This plant also liberally reseeds itself.

From Cuttings

You can propagate beautyberry from softwood cuttings. Softwood is a stem that is not brand new nor old and woody.

Cut 4- to 6-inch stems from a healthy plant. Fill small pots with an all-purpose soil mix and insert and remove a pencil to create a hole for the cutting.

Remove the lower leaves from your cutting, dip the cleanly cut end into rooting hormone and place in the hole.

Create a mini greenhouse by placing a plastic dome or clear plastic bag over the pot or pots. Put it in bright, indirect light.

Read more about propagation techniques for this shrub here.

How to Grow

American beautyberry likes rich, organic soil, but it will tolerate less-delicious soils, as long as they are well-draining. Depending where you live and plant it, it may take full sun, though it will need lots of water. Here in Texas, it’s often used as an understory shrub, with dappled shade.

Callicarpa americana or American beautyberry shrub with purple berry clusters on its branches.
Photo by Gretchen Heber.

If you’re transplanting from a nursery container, dig a hole the the same depth as the root ball and a little wider. Place the root ball in the hole and backfill with native soil.

Water well.

Growing Tips

  • Plant in rich soil if you can’t, but don’t sweat it if you can’t.
  • Water well when young.
  • No need to fertilize.

Pruning and Maintenance

In warmer areas, this shrub may be pruned back in late winter to about 2 feet less than the desired size.

Beautyberry is drought-tolerant once established, though it performs better with more hydration. And as we mentioned above, if you plant it in full sun, you’ll need to really dump the water on it.

This plant doesn’t require fertilization.

Where to Buy

If you’d like to buy a live plant, consider this one from Fragrant Fields Herbs & Perennials, available via Amazon.

American BeautyBerry Bush Live Plant

You’ll get a small plant in a 3.5-inch square pot.

30 Seeds of Callicarpa Americana

If you prefer seeds, consider this packet of 30 seeds from IM WAODE via Amazon.

Managing Pests and Diseases

The only known beautyberry pests are the animals that enjoy the plant’s berries.

You may see minor leaf spots (Atractilina callicarpae) or black mold (Meliola cookeana), which can be treated with a fungicide.

Best Uses

This shrub looks spectacular in mass plantings, and it can be used in reclamation work and for erosion control.

It also makes a nice back-of-the-border plant.

Quick Reference Growing Guide

Plant Type: Woody shrub, deciduous Flower / Foliage Color: Light green leaves, lavender or pink flowers, purple berries
Native To: Southeastern US as far north as Missouri Tolerance: Drought, shade, clay soil
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 6-10 Maintenance: Minimal
Bloom Time / Season: Blooms June-August; berries August-September Soil Type: Not picky
Exposure: Sun to part shade Soil pH: 4.8-7.0
Growth Rate: Fast Soil Drainage: Well-drained
Spacing: 5 feet Companion Planting: Black-eyed susan, columbine, muhly grass
Planting Depth: Same depth as container Uses: Mass plantings, back of borders
Height: 5-9 feet Family: Lamiaceae
Spread: 5 feet Genus: Callicarpa
Water Needs: Drought-tolerant but does better with regular watering, especially when young Species: C. americana
Attracts: Birds and other wildlife
Pests & Diseases: Black mold and leaf spots, damage from animals and birds.

It’s Not FRENCH as Apple Pie

This large shrub with its long, arched, purple-berry-laden branches is a lovely piece of native American flora.

Sun or shade tolerate, not picky about soil, drought-tolerant — it’s a low-maintenance addition to the landscape.

Close up of purple seed clusters of the American beautyberry bush.
Photo by Gretchen Heber.

Do you have American beautyberry in your garden? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

And to find more ornamental woody shrub choices for your backyard, be sure check out some of these guides:

Photos by Gretchen Heber © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Christine

I have this is a very sunny spot in my garden in San Antonio and had to water it twice a day this summer to keep it alive. I think I’ll probably move it to a shadier spot in the next month or so. Thanks for this article…very helpful!