Once upon a time, in our Master Gardener demonstration gardens – back before renovations began on the Senior Center, when all our plants had to be dug up, moved, fostered out, or somehow saved, out of the way of the builders and heavy equipment – there was a gorgeous beautyberry bush, weighted down each fall with deep purple berries. Be still, my heart! How I wanted a plant like that for my yard!
At our annual plant sale, I bought a sprout from that plant, took it home and planted it in a nice spot –sunny and spacious (well, I thought it was spacious at the time). It grew quickly after the first year and filled the space I chose. Although you could do multiple plantings and use beautyberry as a hedge, it is remarkable enough to use as I do, as a specimen plant. Because the beautyberry blooms on current year wood, I have pruned it back severely each winter. Then I fret over it each spring because until well into summer, when many plants are leafing and blooming, it looks very dead. I’m always sure it’s dead and I daily inspect each cane for signs of life. Research showed the beautyberry as having four season interest, but from my experience, I’d say three season interest. Mine is a slow starter in the spring, but once it gets started, it has great foliage lasting into September. Then for the next few months after that, the purple berries are the star of the show. The berries are edible, but they don’t seem to be the birds’ first choice until other food sources are gone. I don’t know if they’re saving them for dessert or if they just don’t taste as good as some other berries.
Now here is some basic research information. American beautyberry – Callicarpa americana – is a fast growing, deciduous shrub, indigenous to North America, noted for the brightly colored berries that cluster along the stems at the leaf axils and remain attractive through the winter. These shrubs have very few pest problems. They want mostly sun, but if your soil is well-drained, it will do well in sun or part shade.
Plant the beautyberry in spring or fall, allowing space for it to spread. If you’re planting a big potted plant, dig a hole only as deep as the rootball but two to three times as wide. Amend the soil only if you have poor soil conditions. Remove the plant from the container and gently tease the roots away from the rootball so they will be ready to grow into the new soil environment. As always, water new plantings regularly until established, and after that a beautyberry needs about an inch a week, although a bit of drought doesn’t seem to affect it. For multiple shrubs, plant about 4 to 6 feet apart.
To prune or not to prune: It’s up to you. To maintain the size I want, I have been pruning my shrub back to about 12 inches each year. Remember, they bloom on new wood, so if you want to prune, do it in late winter. If you’re using multiple shrubs as a hedge, you probably will not want to prune. I might experiment and not prune this winter, just to see how it fares next summer. If you don’t prune, as least do a walk around the shrub and, using my pruning mantra, cut any limbs that are “dead, diseased, or crossing” to keep it tidy.
For some beautiful fall color, consider planting a Callicarpa americana – American beautyberry. They’re easy to grow and to care for. They’re not fussy at all but are rewarding in their beauty, especially with the signature purple berries all through late fall and winter.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website, www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee ; or contact the Cherokee County Extension Office, 1130 Bluffs Parkway, Suite G49, Canton, GA, 30114, 770-721-7803. The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.