American beautyberry: a true American native

Steve Borel, LSU AgCenter
American beautyberry fruits form clusters along drooping branches.

American beautyberry is a native shrub of North America. A plant with a rich history, American beautyberry can be found growing in low, rich bottomlands, at the edges of swamps, in piney woods and in coastal woodlands. It is also commonly known by the name French mulberry, as well as sourberry.

This shrub is strikingly good-looking in late summer and into fall when it encircles its branches with beautiful purple berries. Otherwise inconspicuous flowers can be found in June to July. It is a great addition to the landscape for so many reasons.

Let's start with its distinguishing characteristics. The plant is a deciduous shrub that grows 4 to 8 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide. Its shape is open and airy with a loose, spreading form. It is not a dense shrub. You can see through the open branches to other landscape features. It has beautiful elliptic-shaped, light green to yellow leaves that can be 3 to 6 inches long with toothed margins. This shrub displays a light pink flower in the summer, but it adds no major ornamental value to the landscape.

The fruit, however, is a totally different story. This shrub is called beautyberry just for that reason. Its beautiful, purple berry-like fruit are spectacular. They are most abundant when the shrub is located in full sun, and fruit will be sparse in the shade. It makes for a great understory shrub with a moderate-fast growth rate and requires little maintenance. It grows well in most soils — even poor, clay soils — and is considered be both drought tolerant and relatively pest-free.

This plant offers many ecosystem services. The seeds and berries are an important food source for many songbird species of America, including American robin, brown thrasher, northern bobwhite, purple finch and eastern towhee. It is also an important food source for armadillo, foxes, possums, raccoons, squirrels and white-tailed deer. Additionally, it is a nectar source for butterflies and has fragrant foliage. It is a wonderful choice for homeowners supporting native insects and wildlife.

Humans have also used the American beautyberry throughout history. Native Americans and early settlers used the roots, leaves and branches of the plants to treat ailments such as malarial fevers, rheumatism, sour stomach and dysentery. Farmers successfully used crushed beautyberry leaves in the early 20th century to repel biting bugs from mules and horses by rubbing it on their coats and under harnesses. People also rubbed crushed leaves on their skin as an insect repellant, as well.

The American beautyberry plant can be a great addition to the home landscape as a deciduous understory shrub with fall color interest and for its ecoservice benefits as a native food source for local wildlife and pollinators. It is most notable for its seasonal color change and early autumn color and as an ornamental landscape plant here in Louisiana. It is available at most local nurseries and can be found growing wild throughout Louisiana.

Not much maintenance is required. American beautyberry can be heavily pruned before new growth begins in spring to control the size and shape of the shrub and to encourage new growth on older plant specimens. Or it can be left to grow in its most native, spreading loose form that makes it so graceful and unique.