The Gardener's Apprentice

Beautyberry

Amethyst berries light up the garden in early fall (By Photo by Laitche, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44353508)

Amethyst berries light up the garden in early fall (By Photo by Laitche, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44353508)

Birds love shrubs that produce quantities of fall fruit.  Unfortunately birds generally don’t communicate with plant merchandisers.  Humans finally began to agree with the birds in the last third of the twentieth century, as the three or even four-season gardening trend took hold.  Garden writers caught the bug and began extolling the virtues of fruits like rose hips, viburnum berries and the yellow beads that adorn Oregon grape holly.  The incessant clicking of their keyboards probably drowned out the cheers of the birds.

For garden brilliance, you can’t beat bright red berries, hips or drupes, and the selection of worthy, berry-bearing plants is large.  But what if you are partial to blues and purples, or want something just a little different for your landscape?  The horticultural answers are out there if you know where to look.

The most exquisite fall berries sprout on a climbing plant with a name that sounds like something out of a Roald Dahl children’s story—Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.  Fortunately, it also carries a more accessible common name, “porcelain vine” or “porcelain berry”.  The clusters of berries on this grape family member are painted in Easter egg colors, including shades of yellow, blue, aqua and lavender.  Set against a backdrop of dark green, lobed leaves, porcelain berries shine.

There is only one problem with this beautiful plant.  It is a notorious, invasive thug and should be avoided at all costs.  Ampelopsis fruits delight the birds, who eat their fill, excrete everywhere and contribute mightily to the spread of an already vigorous genus.  If porcelain vine invades your garden, you might enjoy the beautiful fruits, but you will probably rue the day the first sprouts appeared.

For those who don’t want to be strangled in their sleep by an overly-invasive plant, viburnum may be a better choice.  Arrowwood viburnum or Viburnum dentatum is a native shrub that sports quantities of white spring flowers in flattened flowerheads called corymbs.  Those flowers give way to fall berries that are dark blue to almost black—attractive and distinctive, but not flashy.  The birds don’t care and eat them anyway.

But what if you want the colorful drama of porcelain berry without its obnoxious habits?  The answer is easy and the common name says it all—beautyberry.  Beautyberry is known botanically as Callicarpa and was first described by Linnaeus back in 1753.  The common name is a literal translation of the Latin one, which is derived from two ancient Greek words: “callos”, meaning beauty, and “carpos”, meaning fruit.  If you saw beautyberry in the fall, you would know it immediately, because its graceful arching branches bear fat clusters of vivid purple berries.  The color and branch configuration are unique and striking.  In some species and varieties, the purple shades are the same Easter egg hues you see on porcelain berries, minus the latter’s inherent liabilities.

Framed by pairs of light to mid-green opposed leaves, and appearing to cascade down the branches, beautyberry fruits may range in color from lavender through deeper velvet purple.  They last a good long time on the shrubs, but do not hang around through the winter.  Of course, hungry birds may prevent a prolonged display, but the birds have to make their way in a hostile world and it’s hard to begrudge them.

Longwood Gardens, the renowned botanical institution in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, conducted a trial of callicarpas starting about ten years ago.  In judging the quality of the shrubs, the Longwood evaluators considered appearance, hardiness, disease and pest susceptibility and landscape value.  The highest rated shrub was Callicarpa bodinieri var. geraldii, which is sold under the name ‘Profusion’.  This upright Chinese species, long favored in Europe, grows between four to six feet tall and wide and produces small, fragrant lavender flowers in spring.  The toothed leaves are oval-shaped and emerge purple-bronze in color before changing to green in the summer.  At the end of the season, the foliage turns yellow prior to falling from the plant.  Like most callicarpas, ‘Profusion’ prefers full sun for best flower and fruit production, but can manage in light shade.

Birds, animals and humans are attracted to the berries, but the shrubs are easy on the eyes in spring, summer and fall.  Extremely harsh winters may cause the plant to die back to the ground, but branches will generally resprout as the growing season gets underway.  If you want to prune any beautyberry to keep the plant to a specific size, the pruning should be done in early spring.  This will not affect flowering or berry production, because callicarpas bloom on new wood.

Native plant lovers may choose to invest in Callicarpa americana, which was also evaluated at Longwood.  The leaves are lighter green than those of the bodinieri species, creating a nice contrast with the fruits, which are somewhat darker and larger.  Some varieties of the Japanese native, Callicarpa japonica, also offer heavy fruit production and the distinctive light purple berries.

In my town, I have seen a few beautyberry bushes, the most effective of which grows in a terraced bed with its arching stems cascading over a low retaining wall.  The lilac-purple berries glow in the mellow October light.

You can obtain the ‘Profusion’ cultivar online from Monrovia at http://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/411/profusion-beautyberry/, or from local retail nurseries that carry Monrovia branded plants.  Those same nurseries may also offer one or two other beautyberry varieties and it is always worth asking nursery personnel which of them perform best locally.