Neither drought nor heat nor inattention could dull its extravagant show

Steve Bender

This has not been a kind year to garden in the Southeast. For all intents and purposes, the rain halted in mid-July and ruthlessly teased us with raindrops separated by yardsticks until late October. To make matters worse, September and October boiled hotter than July and August. Despite my best efforts to pray and water, most of my plants either went dormant or died earlier this month.

But not my American beautyberries.

American beautyberry aka French mulberry (Callicarpa americana) is a shrub native to the South that's famous for its sumptuous display of splendiferous purple berries in late summer and fall. Both people and wildlife, especially birds, eat the fruit (but if you're planning on making beautyberry jam or jelly, add LOTS of sugar). The fruit can also be white or pink. My white beautyberry (C.a. ‘Bok Tower') is as showy in its own right as the purple form (How often do you see white berries in the garden?) and colors up by midsummer.

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Because American beautyberry has rather coarse, large leaves, I expected it would need more water than refined shrubs during the drought. Not so. Oh, it wilted grandly in the sun at 101 degrees, but never dropped a leaf. It never dropped a berry either. The mockingbirds due to arrive after the first frost are licking their chops.

Finding a decent shrub that's easier to grow than American beautyberry is futile. It blooms and fruits in sun or shade, isn't fussy about soil, and is hardy in USDA Zones 6 to 10. Pests? No problem. A chemical found in the leaves is now being evaluated as a mosquito repellent.

About the only trick to growing beautyberry is knowing when to prune. It blooms on new growth, so cut it back in winter.

Most good nurseries in the South carry American beautyberry. If yours doesn't, Woodlanders is a good online source.

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