Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Callicarpa Americana, or the American Beautyberry. We’ve covered a lot of plants in these articles, and a lot of them are what’s considered “weeds.” They’re great plants, but they’re tenacious and competitive, and unenlightened folks who don’t know all of their wonderful uses actively try to get rid of them. Beautyberry is quite the opposite. Valued as an ornamental shrub, it’s commonly planted in residential and commercial landscapes alike, and is actually far easier to find in an urban or suburban setting than out in the wild, at least in my area. City dwellers walk by this plant every day (and may have even planted it) without knowing any of its valuable edible or medicinal qualities.
American Beautyberry is one of about 140 species in the Callicarpa genus. The only other common species in North America is the Japanese Beautyberry (C. japonica), which is also widely planted as an ornamental. American Beautyberry is a medium-sized, open habit perennial woody shrub that grows to about 4’ tall and can branch to 6’-8’ wide with its long, arching branches. It usually branches straight from the ground and does not normally have a defined trunk. Leaves are opposed, ovate and serrated, with heavily defined veins and rough, almost ruffled texture. They are an extremely bright, almost neon green during the growing season and turn brilliant gold with streaks of purple come fall. Beautyberry’s most distinguishing feature is also its namesake: Its flowers and berries. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beautyberry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. They show up right about now – late summer to early fall in North Georgia. They’ll stay on the plant for a few weeks through fall, which is where the beautyberry earns its name – the neon-purple fruit clusters transposed against the intense golden purple-shaded fall foliage truly is a beautiful sight. No wonder so many people plant them. In fact, I’m one of them. For my Eagle Scout Service Project way back in 2008, I landscaped around the Admissions House at Reinhardt University, which would later become my alma mater. My focus was to use as many Georgia native plants as possible, so American Beautyberries were one of the foundation plants. Ten years later, they’re still going strong. Beautyberry is a southern plant. It’s native to all of the Deep South states, from Virginia east to Texas and from northern Tennessee south to Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Aside from the aforementioned residential plantings (which is the first place I always look for it), beautyberry is a lowland plant. It’s not a true swamp plant and you won’t find it growing in standing water, but look for it in creek bottoms, along riverbanks, and in glades and draws. It prefers open woods or disturbed, brushy areas where it can get enough sun. Mature open bottomland forests and sunny riverbanks are prime habitat. It has no deadly or toxic mimics – its fruiting structure is totally unique, so if you see bright purple berries in a cluster growing directly off the stem, you’re good to go.
Many people will tell you that beautyberry isn’t edible, or even that it’s poisonous. Those people are wrong. Beautyberry is indeed edible, and is even tasty when cooked properly. Berries can be eaten raw, although they have a bland, mealy, astringent flavor. They are much better made into a jam, jelly, sauce, or wine. Cooking breaks down some of the tannins in the seeds and skins and allows the pleasant, fruity flavor to shine through. Beautyberry jam tastes similar to elderberry – mild, palatable, and slightly medicinal. There is no nutritional data available on beautyberry that I was able to find, however… we can make some basic deductions just by what we see and taste. The slightly tart flavor suggests ascorbic or malic acid, which means high levels of Vitamin C. The bright purple color of the berries signifies the presence of anthocycanins, which are powerful disease-fighting antioxidants also contained in grapes and the Brazilian acai berry. The slight mealy sweetness means that there are at least some simple carbohydrates present, which is really useful when you need an energy boost in a wilderness survival situation. So even though there’s no formal data, we can deduce that beautyberries are good for your immune system, fighting free radicals, and serving as a basic food source. Pick them when they’re at their deepest purple for maximum nutritional benefit. Another outside-the-box way to think about beautyberries is as a wild game attractant. Deer, bears, hogs, turkeys, squirrels, and birds of all sizes all love them. If you’re in a wilderness survival situation (or even if you’re not), a beautyberry patch can be a valuable place to hunt, or set traps to work to secure food for you while you’re doing other things.
Beautyberry has some medicinal uses as well. The roots seem to have the broadest medicinal value. A tea (infusion) made from the roots was used by native tribes in the Southeast as a treatment for all manner of stomach issues, from indigestion to gas to mild diarrhea to dysentery. A decoction made from the root bark can also serve as a diuretic.
However, the most impressive use for beautyberry may be as a mosquito repellent. If you were present for our Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft: Bug Repellent course, you remember distilling the essential oils from beautyberry leaves to use in our natural bug repellent mix. These leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either - in 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beautyberry leaves – callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and – get this – actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. However, there are two barriers to creating a commercially viable product with this knowledge. One is finding a cost-effective manufacturing process, but the largest is obtaining EPA approval for the finished chemical, which would cost millions of dollars and probably take the better part of a decade. So you can thank our massive federal bureaucracy for once again keeping a safe, natural, and effective product off the shelves. In the meantime, we’ll keep rubbing leaves on ourselves. But I do think this story is another great example of not discounting traditional remedies just because they’re natural and not pre-packaged. The scientists at Ole Miss who discovered callicarpenal first began their research because their grandparents had all used beautyberry leaves to repel mosquitoes. Lo and behold, they were right.
One final, interesting survival use of beautyberry leaves is as a fish stunner. If you’re near a pond, lake, or slow-moving river or stream, crush up or shred several pounds of beautyberry leaves and dump them in the water. Chemical compounds in the leaves are temporarily toxic to the nearby fish and will paralyze them, causing them to float to the surface where you can conveniently collect them. Keep in mind that this is illegal, so don’t do it unless you’re actually in a survival situation. But if you are… hey, fish bonanza!
Do you know any other survival uses for beautyberries? Are you making beautyberry jelly this fall? Tell us in the comments!