SOMEONE ONCE SAID, “Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts.” They very well might have been thinking of beautyberry.
For most of the year, beautyberry is a bit of a wallflower (wall shrub?). But when otherworldly violet-purple berries appear along the plant’s twiggy branches, the plant becomes a diva hitting all the high notes, vibrating with energy in the autumn garden.
Garden placement is key to giving this shrub its seasonal spotlight. Richard Hartlage, principal of Land Morphology, a Seattle-based landscape design firm, advises siting beautyberry against an evergreen backdrop to allow the purple berries to visually pop. Over in the Waterwise Garden at Bellevue Botanical Garden, designer Jil Stenn places beautyberry with golden locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) and variegated weigela (Weigela ‘Florida Variegata’), effectively pumping up the volume on the purple-and-gold contrast.
I call myself a “horticolorist”: a lover of plants and color. Here’s how I might work beautyberry into a home landscape: To start, I’d choose a deep bed with plenty of room for a number of plants that collectively will carry interest throughout the year — up against an evergreen hedge is ideal. Play along as we follow this imaginary garden through the seasons.
Starting in late winter, golden species narcissus and purple snow crocus emerge from a carpet of bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) skirting the bare beautyberry, an early-season echo of the show to come. My favorite form of bugleweed is ‘Black Scallop’, with crinkled maroon leaves and a brilliant show of violet blooms later in spring.
Summer clusters of demure pink flowers along the stems of beautyberry attract bees and butterflies. “Ho-hum; that’s nice,” you might think before shifting your attention to other more-generous displays during peak floral season. So, let’s jazz things up by including a few clumps of variegated purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’), a tidy, low-growing grass with gold and green leaves and pinkish-tinged flowering panicles in summer.
With cooler temperatures and shorter days, fall foliage on both the purple moor grass and the beautyberry turns golden, like they’re grasping at the diminishing sun. Finally, the climax and resolution of this playful little color story: The remarkable purple berries take center stage. Throughout winter, bare branches beaded with berries feed color-starved gardeners (figuratively speaking, although the berries are not toxic) and birds alike. Fortunately, I read that deer dislike all parts of the plant, which means the show goes on and on.
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is distributed throughout the southeastern United States. However, the expert plantspeople at Great Plant Picks advise local gardeners to seek out Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’. Originally native to China, this self-fertile selection can be counted on to reliably produce a crop of gorgeous berries in Pacific Northwest gardens.
Beautyberry does best in full sun or light shade with fertile soil. An upright, vase-shaped shrub with an arching growth habit to 6 feet tall and as wide, the plant flowers, and therefore fruits, on new wood. Supplemental water during dry spells helps the fruit to fully develop. Upkeep is minimal, with few to no pest or disease issues. Prune in late winter to remove older twiggy growth and maintain healthy growth.