By Terry W. Johnson
In recent years, a native shrub named the American beautyberry has been making a transition from Georgia's woodlands to backyards throughout the state. It is remarkable that it has taken Georgians so long to realize that this native shrub is both an attractive addition to our home landscapes and a valuable wildlife food plant.
Throughout most of the year you might question why the plant's name alludes to its beauty. However, from late summer into winter, when clusters of bright purple berries festoon the plant, it becomes apparent this shrub deserves its name. Its berries are among the most eye-catching berries and fruits found in our woodlands.
Some suggest that the berries' unique lavender color acts like a gaudy roadside sign telling migrating songbirds and other critters, "Come eat me!" Migratory birds, which need to quickly refuel before resuming their southward migration, benefit by being able to easily find an energy-rich source of food. In return, the beautyberry is rewarded by having its seeds scattered widely when birds and other animals expel them with their droppings.
Beautyberries are eaten by a host of wild animals. In some parts of the South, beautyberry is an important deer food. Whitetails will eat the plants stems, leaves and fruit particularly when more preferred foods are hard to come by. Other mammals that will dine on beautyberry include rodents, the nine-banded armadillo, raccoon and the Virginia opossum.
While quail also eat the berries, songbirds seem to make greater use of them than any other group of wildlife. More than 40 species of birds feed on the purple berries. On migration, Baltimore orioles, catbirds, robins, thrushes and other migrants have to compete for the highly sought after food with our resident eastern towhees, brown thrashers and mockingbirds. Interestingly, mockingbirds often go to great lengths to prevent other birds from eating berries from bushes they have staked out as their private feeding sites.
One reason the berries are an important food source is linked to the fact that they remain on the shrub well into winter. In contrast, the fruits and berries of many of our important wildlife food plants are only available to wildlife for a relatively short period of time. How long the berries remain on the plant is tied to the availability of other foods and the numbers of critters dining on them. Last year, the beautyberries disappeared from my yard by October. But late in December I found plenty of the purple berries on plants growing near Bainbridge.
The American beautyberry is a deciduous shrub. That's a fancy way of saying it loses its leaves in winter. While the plant sometimes reaches a height of 15 feet or more, most beautyberry shrubs are only 4 to 6 feet tall. Although the shrub seems to grow best in fertile loams, it also grows well in of other soil types, including dry, clay soils. The key to the American beautyberry doing well in your yard is positioning plants in sites that range from full sun to partial shade. Experienced gardeners will tell you that berry production is greatest when the plant is bathed in bright sunlight for no more than half a day.
The American beautyberry's small, pale lilac flowers, coupled with extremely attractive berries and handsome foliage, make it an attractive landscape planting. The plant seems to work especially well when planted as an occasional shrub in a shrub border. It can also be grown as an understory shrub in wooded yards. When planted alone, the shrub's branches will arch downward, creating a pleasing shape.
Like many native plants, American beautyberry requires little care and less water than many ornamentals. About the only care the plant requires is annual pruning during the winter. Care should be taken to restrict pruning to dead wood. While pruning isn't necessary, the practice will increase berry yields. The brightly colored berries are borne on new wood.
While most beautyberry plantings are established using container plants, they can be propagated from either cuttings or seeds. If you would like to give your yard a different look, add this plant to your landscape. The American beautyberry will enhance the attractiveness of your property.
A word of caution, though: Be prepared to field a bevy of questions from your human neighbors wanting to know what the plant is and where they can get their own.
Don't worry about the wildlife that lives just outside your backdoor; they wont need an introduction to this attractive Georgia native. Their association with the American beautyberry goes back to a time long before the first Native Americans set foot in what has become known as the Peach State.
Terry Johnson is former Nongame Program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted writer and expert on backyard wildlife, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section.