by Roger Klinger
Many years ago I was bushwhacking through a field in the Shenandoah Valley where I lived, and I came across a mass of unusual, berry-laden shrubs growing in the moist field. The shrubs were covered with unbelievably brilliant purple berries growing in mass clusters ,and I was amazed, as I had never seen berries with such a luscious purple color.
The shrubs turned out to be American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and they filled my heart with joy. There were thousands of these tiny porcelain-like berries in dense clusters, cascading in every direction, and I felt as if I had discovered some new treasure in the wild. Purple is a favorite color of mine and these berries are an electric purple.
For many years I had no idea the berries were edible, so I used them in flower arrangements every fall; people were always amazed by their color and graceful, unusual beauty. One Japanese friend called them a “purple waterfall” and used them in her Ikebana arrangements.
Then one day while researching these lovely shrubs, I found out the berries were native and also edible. The first time I ate a few, I was surprised by their delicate sweetness and the delightful crunchy texture of the hard little berries. Since that day, I have eaten many a beautyberry every fall and have found many recipes for beautyberry jelly, which I have yet to try.
American beautyberry is also sometimes called “French Mulberry,” which seems like a strange juxtaposition, since they seem far removed from mulberry fruits on every level and don’t even exist in France.
Beautyberry is in the Vervain family of plants, which includes lantana. Its name comes from the Greek word kalli, which means “beautiful,” and karpos, meaning “fruit.” These deciduous shrubs are native from Florida into the lower Northeast states, and they seem to prefer moist soil rich in leaf compost; over time they can grow in masses that are quite stunning to behold. These shrubs can grow to 10 feet high but usually hover around 6 feet at maturity. Their inconspicuous flowers appear in the summer, but come the turn of the seasonal clock, the purple berries seem to appear suddenly. Birds love the berries and will feast on them even after they have dried and turned into tiny shriveled purple raisins. Squirrels, raccoons, possum and foxes also enjoy eating these tiny fruits of the forest.
Native Americans used all parts of beautyberry as medicine, often making a tea for the treatment of rheumatism, dysentery and stomach aches. Both the roots and the berries were used in ceremonies and the bark from the stems was used to treat skin rashes and itches.
Another interesting characteristic of beautyberry’s history is that many tribes used beautyberry as a fish poison. One of the amazing features of beautyberry is that it has a long history as being a superb folk remedy as an insect repellant. In Mississippi, farmers would take branches of beautyberries, crush them and place them on the harness of their horses to repel deerflies and mosquitoes. USDA researchers say that beautyberry may be as effective as DEET, and compounds have been isolated from the plants to repel fire ants. One can simply crush the leaves and rub them on the skin as a quick insect repellant, but I am excited to explore possibilities for making homemade insect repellant in the form of a salve or a tincture that might be sprayed on the body during high mosquito season. Some current research shows that beautyberry’s chemical compounds may have anti-tumor properties, and many folks believe the berries are likely to be high in antioxidants. The berries have been used to make a natural dye and have also been paired with other stronger fruits to make wine.
It amuses me that there are a number of references that list beautyberry as a poisonous shrub, but it simply is not true. Many sources state that the berries may be edible but do not taste good, but that’s not my experience. However, some references report people getting mild stomach upset from eating the berries so, as with all foods, wild or domestic, it’s a good idea to experiment with small quantities to see how your body reacts.
Autumn in our beloved mountains is such a time of beauty and grace. The dogwood trees are turning red, as are Virginia creeper vines snaking up the tall trees, and it seems to be an abundant year for acorns, chestnuts and walnuts. This morning I decided to take a brief walk through the gardens and migrated over to the mature beautybush by our pond — I had moved it twice to give it the room it needed —and it is laden with electric purple berries. As I held a cluster of berries in my hand, I marveled at their luminosity in the early rays of morning sunshine, and I popped a few into my mouth. Once again, I savored their sweet flavor and unique crunchy texture.
There is a movement here in the Southeast called the “Green Scene” and one of their mottoes printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers advocates “eat something wild every day.” Now that’s a prescription I can adhere to in life, and today, my first wild treat of the day was from the purple spectrum of life, and it was a delicious treat.
Contact Roger at email@example.com.