American beautyberry is a many-branched shrub that bears attractive rounded clusters of rose, purple, violet, or blue berrylike fruits along the stems, in the axils of the leaves, in late summer and fall. A critically imperiled species in Missouri, it is also a popular native shrub for landscaping.
Leaves are simple, opposite, and aromatic; the blades are oval, broadest at or above the middle, tip pointed, base wedge-shaped, the margin coarsely toothed near the ends; 3–9 inches long, 1½–5 inches wide, dark green and smooth or powdery above, paler with dense, star-shaped hairs beneath; leaf stalk slender, ¾–2 inches long, with dense, star-shaped hairs.
Flowers June–August, numerous, borne in the leaf stem axils, rose to pink or pale blue (rarely white), small tubular, 4-lobed; stamens 4, protruding.
Fruits August–November, berrylike, borne in conspicuous round, compact clusters in leaf axils, rose to purple or violet to blue, globe-shaped, fleshy, ⅛–¼ inch long, sweet; seeds 4, about 1/16 inch long, light brown.
Twigs are circular to 4-sided in cross-section, slender, gray to reddish brown, with dense, star-shaped hairs, becoming smooth later. The bark on old trunk stems is smooth, tight, or somewhat roughened with small, thin scales below.
- There are three related but nonnative species cultivated as ornamentals: Callicarpa dichotoma (purple beautyberry or early amethyst), Callicarpa bodinieri (Bodinier beautyberry), and Callicarpa japonica (Japanese beautyberry) are similar in appearance to American beautyberry. They are native to Asia and may be somewhat more cold-tolerant than the native beautyberry. There have been instances of C. dichotoma escaping from cultivation in Missouri.
- Buckbrush, or coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) grows throughout Missouri and somewhat resembles American beautyberry. Buckbrush is a common, familiar thicket-forming shrub that bears dense clusters of pinkish-red berries that persist through most of the winter. It is in the honeysuckle family, so it is not closely related. Leaves are mostly untoothed.
- Two other species of coralberries or snowberries (Symphoricarpos) may be encountered, too. Wolfberry, or western snowberry (S. occidentalis), is uncommon in far northwestern Missouri and occurs in rich upland forests and margins of loess hill prairies; it is also cultivated as an ornamental and border plant. White coralberry (S. albus) is sometimes grown in Missouri gardens and might occasionally escape from cultivation. It is native to the northern United States and is not native to Missouri. It has snow white fruits.
Height: to 9 feet.
Uncommon as a native shrub in the southeastern part of Missouri. Potentially grown statewide as a native ornamental shrub.
Habitat and Conservation
In Missouri, American beautyberry occurs naturally on wooded dolomite slopes bordering the White River. Natural habitats include ledges and blufftops, openings of upland woods, and bottomland forests. Historical sites have been destroyed by the impounded waters of Table Rock Dam, but two small populations have been found growing just above the high-water mark along Bull Shoals Lake. Another site has been discovered in Ripley County.
Missouri is at the northwestern extreme of American beautyberry’s overall range, and it was probably never abundant in the state. The plant is common in Arkansas. The damming of the White River destroyed most of the Missouri habitat for this shrub.
Native deciduous shrub. A Missouri species of conservation concern. Used as a native ornamental shrub for its attractive purple fruit clusters.
American beautyberry is cultivated statewide as a native landscaping ornamental because of its spectacular, dense clusters of bright violet to magenta berrylike fruits. It’s a long-lived plant, but it may die back to the ground during especially harsh Missouri winters. Cut away the old stems, because the berries arise only on new growth.
This species was a favorite of Missouri’s famed botanist Julian Steyermark (1909–1988), who remarked on the unusual color of its attractive, long-persistent fruits and its suitability for cultivation as an ornamental. Steyermark was the first botanist to discover this species in Missouri, in 1949. He was adamantly opposed to the damming of Ozark watersheds for the creation of reservoirs and wrote passionately decrying the destruction of scenic natural habitats and rare plants in the early 1950s when Bull Shoals Lake was created in the White River watershed in southwestern Missouri and adjoining Arkansas. He pointed to American beautyberry as a prime example of a wonderful plant lost from the Missouri Ozarks as the lake waters rose. He believed that the plant had been extirpated from our state, but some small populations still persist on the bluffs above the high-water line.
The genus name, Callicarpa, is from the Greek word kallos (“beauty”) and karpos (“fruit”); the species name, americana, refers to the country in which it was discovered.
American beautyberry was used medicinally by various Native American tribes for treating fevers, rheumatism, stomach and digestive ailments, and dizziness.
Edible wild foods enthusiasts point out that the berries of this species are edible, with a spicy flavor. Raw, they can be mealy and less than appetizing. Look online for ideas on how to boil the berries to make a ruby-colored juice, which can then be made into a gelatin, jelly, tea, shrub, or other juice-based concoction. As always, be cautious when trying a new food, as some individuals may have allergic reactions.
Farmers in the early 20th century crushed the leaves of American beautyberry and rubbed them on themselves to repel mosquitoes and other biting insects. They would also place the crushed leaves under the harnesses of horses and mules for the same purpose. Two chemicals in the leaves, callicarpenal and intermedeol, have insect-repelling qualities.
Many species of birds eat the fruit, later distributing the seed. These include northern bobwhite, American robin, northern cardinal, mockingbird, brown thrasher, eastern towhee, purple finch, and wood thrush. The fruits are also eaten by raccoon, opossum, squirrels, gray fox, and deer. Deer also browse the foliage.
American beautyberry is one of many species whose Missouri range represents an outer portion of the overall range. Missouri is like the center of a Venn diagram where northern, southern, eastern, and western ecological regions intersect. Why should we care about species that seem well-established elsewhere? There are many reasons. First, our “fringe” populations likely represent genetic variability compared to plants elsewhere. Our outlying populations might have genetic traits that are important for the species’ survival, especially when one considers climate change, introduced pests and diseases, and so on. Also, outlying populations often turn out to be different species, once they have been studied thoroughly. Fringe populations also provide important information about the biogeography and history of a species. Finally, these species are part of our state’s natural heritage, and if Missourians want to protect our state’s plants and animals, we have to protect their communities as a whole.