A splash of crayon violet catches your eye, then a closer look reveals clusters of vibrant purple berries perched up and down the stems of an otherwise unassuming, deciduous shrub. Is this the work of children playing hooky in your garden with their Crayolas, or are these berries truly that electric grape color? No, the neighborhood children are not responsible for the color of these wonderful fruit. The Beautyberry shrub, one of several Callicarpa species, gives this bold display each fall.
Callicarpa means 'beautiful fruit' which is very appropriate. Generally coarse and unremarkable throughout the rest of the year, Callicarpas are at their best each fall when their berries mature to intense violet or metallic blue. Some Beautyberries also develop a rosy hued tinge in their leaves in the fall which contributes to the overall display. All Beautyberries flower in spring with light pink or pale lavender flower clusters which are not especially showy but are delicately attractive and mature into the fabulous fruit clusters. The fruit generally persists after leaf-fall which makes these shrubs an excellent choice to add interest to evergreen plantings or anywhere late fall displays are desired. There are also white-fruited forms of almost all of the Beautyberries which can be successfully interplanted with the purple-fruited forms or used on their own as less obtrusive fall interest plants. The white berries are especially effective against broadleaved evergreens.
There are a number of species of Beautyberry which range in height, hardiness, foliar character and refinement. Callicarpa americana, the American Beautyberry or French Mulberry, is our native Callicarpa. This is the largest and most coarse of the Beautyberries. Very large leaves (up to 6 inches long and half as wide) are borne on exceptionally loose, open stems. Foliage is fuzzy and a light, rather yellowish green. This native is not as hardy as other Beautyberries. It will be reliable through the Piedmont and coastal areas of the South but will suffer in the mountains. It is probably the most moisture loving of the Beautyberries and gives the best fruit show in full sun. The fruit is borne tightly pressed against the stem in clusters around the leaf bases. This shrub can get quite large and ungainly but since it flowers on new growth it can be pruned to within 6 inches of the ground each spring or late winter. The white fruited form is called Callicarpa americana var. lactea.
Probably the most widely grown garden Beautyberry is Callicarpa japonica, the Japanese Beautyberry. Native to Japan, as the name suggests, this is the hardiest Beautyberry and the best choice for the mountains (however, temperatures below -5F will probably result in stem dieback). Japanese Beautyberry is somewhat more refined than its American cousin but is still relatively coarse and will reach 6-8 feet in height and spread. There is some argument among horticulturists as to whether it is always as showy in fruit as some of the other Beautyberries, especially since its fruit are borne in loose, open clusters. This shrub prefers well-drained soils and also does best in full sun. Pruning is beneficial. Japanese Beautyberry can achieve an almost lavender fall color which is especially beautiful with its intensely purple fruit. The handsome cultivar called 'Leucocarpa' is a particularly attractive white-fruited Beautyberry.
The Bodinier Beautyberry, Callicarpa bodinieri, is a native of China which is very popular with English gardeners. Like Japanese Beautyberry it has a medium degree of coarse texture and will also reach 6-8 feet at maturity. It has bluish fruits which are borne in somewhat open clusters that do not persist as well those of American Beautyberry. Hardiness is similar to American Beautyberry although it may not be as tolerant of hot, wet southern summers.
Callicarpa dichotoma, the Purple Beautyberry, is an introduced native of China and Japan considered by many to be the most refined and graceful Beautyberry for gardens. It is smaller than other Beautyberries, reaching only 3-4 feet in height with a 4-5 feet spread. Foliage is darker colored, smaller, more dense and generally more handsome than other Beautyberries. Fruit is bright lilac and usually prolific, giving a lovely display. C. dichotoma var. albifructus is the equally attractive white-fruited form.
All of the Beautyberries have a special bold beauty to bring to fall gardens. Particularly when planted in groups, their shining colorful fruit are a beacon for the eye and a delight for any gardener. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), many of the Callicarpas surprise visitors with their fall displays. The Callicarpa collection across from the Leyland Cypress Circle in the West Arboretum shows a wide variety of species and forms while, in the Early-Late Border at the west end of the Perennial Border, an American Beautyberry and a white-fruited Japanese Beautyberry are beautiful examples of Callicarpa in a gardenesque setting. A walk to see the Beautyberries will be sure to surprise and delight you with their wonderfully uninhibited fall display.