Neil Sperry

This native Texas shrub is an American beauty

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I guess I just grew up thinking it was intended to be growing there around College Station. A robust shrub with big, maroon fruit about the time school resumed every fall. It was only too natural. At least to a 6-year-old trailing around behind his dad in the Range and Forestry research plots out by the old Easterwood Airport.

Those were special days in my life. I learned a lot from my dad, and I remember learning about this plant as we walked through those woods. As I sit here laying down words that I hope will tumble into a coherent column, I see the fruit on my own American beautyberries starting to turn maroon. I think back to those days with my dad and I see a photo of the house I grew up in on my desktop. It’s a nice way to start out a column.

American beautyberry grows best in the shade. Like other plants with large leaves, it uses a great deal of water, and so when hot, dry times roll in in June or July, beautyberries can’t handle much sun. I grow mine in about the same light I’d give azaleas or gardenias – sun until 10 or 11, then shade the balance of the day. And, as with the others, beautyberries do best with rich, highly organic garden soils that are kept constantly moist.

As I write this I’m struggling to describe how this plant grows. Its leaves look like a mulberry’s leaves. They’re big and they’re bold. But the plant itself only grows to be 6 or 8 feet tall (and there are shorter types), and it doesn’t produce many branches. It’s deciduous, so there are four or so months out of the year when it’s completely bare. It really looks and acts almost like a perennial. But it’s really a shrub. A coarse-textured, large-leafed, deciduous shrub. That’s not an easy combination to work into a fine garden design. You have to have just the right spot where lighting and textures come together to call for its attributes.

I’ve positioned my American beautyberries alongside very fine-textured shrubs in our gardens. In one bed they’re on the shady side of some junipers and in another bed they’re growing in with a tall type of very small-leafed nandinas (Umpqua Warrior) so I can take advantage of the nandinas’ attractive winter maroon foliage as the fruit of the beautyberries disappear.

We’ve come all this way in our discussions of beautyberries and we haven’t even touched on their really unusual habit these plants have of bearing their fruit in masses along their stems. You rarely see this, but when it happens with jewel-like berries that are borne by the scores, it makes it all the more noticeable. You couldn’t attach more fruit with a glue gun. It makes for a novel look in the landscape.

Birds love the iridescent magenta fruit as much as we do. Perhaps it’s because they ripen at a time when little other fresh fruit is available, or maybe they’re just outright delectable, but for whatever the reason, the fruit won’t hang around long once it starts to mature. You’ll get to enjoy it for several weeks and then, poof, it’ll be gone.

It’s worth noting that there is a pearl-colored (“white”) selection of beautyberry on the market. However, unless you’re just a glutton for the unusual or a diehard Longhorn fan who can’t bring yourself to buy anything maroon, move on. The white type won’t make your heart race. It’s about as handsome as sweat stains on a tee shirt.

You’re going to be out around town these next several weeks. I hope you’ll keep your eyes open looking for fine gardens that feature this native Texas shrub. Once in a long while you’ll find it used in a massed planting, and that’s when you’ll know that someone quite special has had a hand in that landscape design. If it’s appropriate, take a photo or two for future reference. You might want to adapt that concept for a spot at your place.

Since my days walking those South Central Texas woods with my dad, American beautyberry has become much more widely available. You probably won’t find it in national chain stores, but the better independent retail garden centers will normally handle it. Talk to the owner or manager. It’s certainly out there in the wholesale trade, and if your nursery gets enough inquiries, they’ll start to handle it. Spring and fall are the two times you’re most likely to find it. Here’s wishing you well in your search!

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