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Boerne Chapter

NICE! plant for April — an American beauty

Author: Bill Ward

Operation NICE! (Natives Instead of the Common Exotics!) recommendation for April is another top-favorite landscape plant — American beautyberry. This is a planning-ahead recommendation. American beautyberry won’t be at its showiest for months, but this is a good time to plant beautyberries for fall gratification. During early fall, the limbs become shish kebabs of bright purple berries.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is an easy-to-grow shrub that does well in the shade of large trees. Beautyberry commonly reaches four to six feet high, sometimes higher, and spreads laterally for many feet. This large bush needs a little room to spread.

Small purple berries
Limbs of American beautyberry bend under the weight of purple berries during early fall. (Photo by Bill Ward)

American beautyberry is multi-branched and has large light-green ovate leaves. Patches of tiny white, pink, or blue flowers develop along the limbs during late spring. The flowers soon give way to clusters of green berries that presently turn magenta-purple.

This shrub can provide a good screen from spring to early winter. During some falls the leaves are bright lemon-yellow, but the autumn color is not dependable. Winter limbs are bare, but clusters of purple berries may remain even after the leaves fall. How long the berries stay depends on the birds in the vicinity. Mockingbirds, cardinals, and summer tanagers find the berries on our large backyard beautyberry too good to resist.

I first took notice of American beautyberry over 50 years ago when we moved to East Texas as newlyweds. My geologic mapping took me into the piney woods, where I discovered a whole set of plants unknown to a boy from Central Texas. In those damp eastern woods, American beautyberry grows with ferns, wild azaleas, and flowering dogwood.

Long before there was a Native Plant Society of Texas, I discovered that some of those piney-woods plants can be good landscape plants. Our backyard in Tyler had many trees, shrubs, and flowers that were transplanted from the nearby woods. One of our favorites was the American beautyberry or, as they called it in East Texas, “French mulberry.” After we moved to New Orleans, we continued the practice of landscaping with native plants, including American beautyberry, which there was called “Spanish mulberry.”

When we came to the Boerne area many years ago, I was startled to see a healthy growth of American beautyberry on stream terraces at the Cibolo Nature Center. I had thought this was an eastern plant that needed acid soil. I was pleased to learn that the western limit of its range extends to Kendall and Bexar Counties, where it does just fine in the moist soils of canyons and bottomlands.

What pleased me even more was to find that American beautyberry is readily available at local nurseries, and we could continue to have it as a yard plant. Besides that, white American beautyberry (C. americana var. lactea) sometimes can be found at local nurseries. Its white berries are an interesting contrast to the usual purple clusters.

As I learned through the years, American beautyberry is easy to transplant and can be cultivated in a variety of soil types. It is fairly drought-tolerant if grown in the shade. Even in shady spots, however, the leaves may look droopy in midday summer heat. Beautyberries grown in the sun require more water. Severe heat and drought may cause this plant to temporarily defoliate.

In many places in the wild, American beautyberry seems to escape heavy browsing by deer. However, in our neighborhood, American beautyberry is snipped by deer, at least during dry periods. All of our beautyberries have to grow inside wire-fence exclosures. If we are to have interesting diversity among our landscape plants in this area of deer over-population, then exclosures are necessary. Besides, I hardly notice the wire fences anymore, and I’m certainly glad to be able to enjoy the various plants.

The Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas provides free planting and care instructions for American beautyberry at the nurseries participating in Operation NICE! (Hill Country African Violets & Nursery and Maldonado Landscape & Nursery in Boerne and Medina Garden Nursery in Medina). The instruction sheets also are available at Cibolo Nature Center.

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason