A Return to Beauty(berries)

San Bernard Oak ~ May 7, 2020

Eager to visit some of my favorite spots after our unusual February freeze, I trekked out to the San Bernard Oak last weekend. Conditions along the boardwalk leading to the champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) differed considerably from those I’d found last May — ‘lush’ and ‘verdant’ having been replaced by ‘sere’ and ‘bare.’

Still, some of the empty space around the bottom of the tree was intentional. A second visit last spring showed evidence of human hands at work; much of the growth around the trunk had been cleared away, leaving room for an American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) to thrive.

San Bernard Oak and Beautyberry ~ May 23, 2020

As a native shrub, the beautyberry had a decent chance of surviving our unexpected ice and snow. At first glance, its transformation into a collection of sticks didn’t seem to bode well, but when I took a closer look, I found tiny leaves, less than a half-inch long, emerging from those bare branches.

As temperatures rise and rain falls, leaves will increase, buds will follow, and flowers will lead to fruits.

When the berries finally appear, birds and other woodland creatures will feed on them, while humans will rejoice in their beauty, and perhaps make a little jelly or wine for their own enjoyment.


Comments always are welcome.

61 thoughts on “A Return to Beauty(berries)

  1. Let’s hope your picture of the flowers will lead people to realize it’s not only the berries that are attractive in this species.

    In checking the distribution map just now, I saw that American beautyberry is a southeastern species, and therefore neither of us grew up with it. I also noticed that Florida is the one state in which every county is marked for beautyberry. In Louisiana and South Carolina only a few counties remain unmarked.

    1. They are pretty flowers, aren’t they? I enjoy the way they cluster around the leaves. I saw the berries long before I saw any flowers, and thought the leaves had grown through the berries. My mistake!

      Beautyberry is prevalent in Arkansas, too: at least, in the western/northwestern parts of the state. When I visited in the fall, it was growing quite thickly in combination with goldenrod, and it made a beautiful example of fall’s purple and gold combination.

        1. I recalled that photo once I saw it. What I’d forgotten was my first sight of beautyberry in Heavener. It wasn’t a particularly impressive collection of berries, but it was more impressive than the Runestone.

    1. It’s so natural to think of berries as red or orange that seeing this purple for the first time was quite a shock. Blueberries and blackberries have some purple in them, but these can tend toward magenta: they’re very handsome.

  2. It’s amazing how plants survive and thrive through the seasons, no matter how harsh they may be from year to year. Their beauty and variety is even more amazing.

    1. I suspect more than a few gardeners have developed a new appreciation for the adaptive abilities of native plants. It’s possible to grow tropical plants here, but that pretty, non-native hibiscus isn’t going to fare so well under a half-inch of ice or in below-freezing temperatures. Seeing what emerges, and how soon, is going to be very interesting. I expected to see buttercups and anemones right away; clover, henbit, and even our tiny wild geraniums are blooming now, too.

    1. It wasn’t particularly spiffy this trip, but there was a little ‘springing forth’ going on. The Canna glauca are poking up. Many leaves have blackened tips, but they’re growing. I saw some of our native geraniums — those tiny pink ones — and hundreds of thousands of crow poison. There were buttercups, wild onions, and lots of Skippers. No butterflies, though.There was no water at all along the boardwalk to the oak, but the palmettos looked good. I hope we get some decent rain this weekend; that will help.

      They’ve done a tremendous lot of work expanding the boardwalks along the marsh. It’s really nice.

    1. There’s a lesson, for sure. Plant native! I’m confident that the beautyberry will be fine, and it will be fun keeping an eye on it in the coming months. Some plants that seemed to have survived are beginning to look really sad, although I do have to laugh at the long row of palms that have had every single frond removed. They look like big Q-tips sticking up into the sky.

  3. MA is at their northernmost range with my bush dying to the ground most years, but it is hardy and always grows back. Of course, all that energy costs the plant and it seems our berries are smaller than southern ones. But I still love that bright berry, so unique in my garden.

    1. It’s apparently quite a tasty berry, too. Around here, they’re one of the first to disappear from the bushes; beating the birds to get a good photo can be a bit of a trick. Have you ever tried making jelly from the berries? I’ve had it, and while it isn’t strongly flavored, it’s quite good.

  4. As with many things we grew up with, I am all too guilty of taking the American Beautyberry for granted. I cannot imagine a walk in our woods with no purple berries!

    Thank you for your wonderful photographs, especially of the flowers. I have taken pictures of them before but it was usually as a “target of opportunity” while birding or seeking bugs. This year, I must make an effort to concentrate on those American Beauty”blooms”.

    1. I’ve found the berries easier to photograph than the flowers, partly because of the way they grow, nestled up against the stems. They’re so pretty, though; it’s worth the effort. Someone pointed out to me today that the USDA map shows the plant in every Florida county — aren’t you the lucky ones!
      I had my first taste of beautyberry jelly thanks to a Floridian. A woman who’s a member of the Florida native plant society was selling it on Etsy, and I gave it a try. It was quite nice, although like other jellies made from native berries (agarita, mayhaw) the flavor wasn’t particularly strong.

  5. Oh, I love seeing this transition! The flower is beautiful in itself and then add to it those beautiful purple berries — wonderful for the birds. I’m so glad things are coming back to life in your world!

    1. I passed some farm fields last weekend where the crops already are sprouting, and I found some new growth on our oleanders today. While the freeze seems forever ago, I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that the time change is this weekend. It feels like we just moved out of December, for heaven’s sake! We need all the growth of spring to reset our internal clocks, I think.

    1. It’s a beauty, in every sense. I see it’s native reach makes it almost to Illinois; could it be cultivated there? A gardener in Massachusetts manages to grow it, although it does freeze back, and doesn’t flourish as it does down here. You might not have room for it, though, even if it could be coaxed along.

      I looked at the Missouri Botanical Garden page for it, and laughed at their description of the flowers as ‘insignificant.’ They’re quite small, but insignificant? I don’t think so!

    1. I think you might have given me my first glimpse of the flowers. I know that after I saw some photos it took a while for me to find the actual flowers. Even after I found some good stands of the plants, I still had to wait for the bloom to come around again. I really do hope the one by the San Bernard Oak blooms again this year; I think it would make the tree happy, too.

      1. The tree and the shrub do look very nice together, I agree. I wish the blooms lasted a little longer, they’re so sweet looking.

  6. It’s good to see the Beautyberry made it through the freeze. They were a frequent sight in the woods I used to wander as a kid. I’m hoping to see signs of life from some of the Mountain Laurel on our property. The larger ones still have some green, but the smaller ones are looking worse than I’ve ever seen them. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

    1. When I visited Lost Maples last fall, the Mountain Laurels were everywhere. I’d intended to go back this spring when they were in full bloom. If yours come through without significant damage those surely will, too. My friend who lives at the top of a hill outside Kerrville has seen hers freeze back several times over the years, and recover well. I’ll have to remember to ask her for an update on them, too.

      In Cost, Texas, at the memorial for the first shot fired in the Texas Revolution, there’s a pair of Mountain Laurels on either side of the marker. I spent a little time there last spring, just inhaling that fragrance.

    1. We’re all ready for a little color, aren’t we? It was a gray day here, and it was nice to spend a little time with these bits of color. The wild irises in the ditches are putting up leaves; it won’t be long until we have those colors, too.

  7. Beauty berries were my favorites of all the things my grandmother grew. The scent was so exotic. I wished we could eat the berries for their color alone. We pelted each other with them in our war games. My sister and I used them as peas in our playhouse kitchen. LOL.

    I used to search for them in local nurseries and never found them. Perhaps it is time to look again. I must find out if they will grow in our clay soil though. Thanks for the memory.

    1. You should take a look at the nurseries, especially native plant nurseries. I know the plants are fairly easy to obtain here. If the are Master Gardeners or native plant societies in your area, you might see if they have plant sales. Beautyberry and milkweeds often can be found that way.

      We didn’t have beautyberries, so we made do with crabapples in our childhood battles. They were the one fruit the grownups left on the trees, and didn’t fuss at us for picking.

      1. Thanks for the suggestions. I pulled my copy of Eating on the Wild Side and learned that crabapples are better than our modern apples. I have never seen a crabapple. LOL. The worst ammo ever were pinecones. And wild limes. We were told they were poison. It’s a wonder we ever had grand outdoor adventures, seeing as how we were almost “don’ted” to death.

        My milkweed sprang up overnight. I am grateful to Mom Nature. I recently read the plant is considered a nuisance. Because it has a mind of its own?

  8. Your wonderful photos inspire us all to take a closer look at the world around us. Our snow finally all disappeared over last night, except for a one foot square in my dog pen. And under the snow were daffodils are poking through the bark bed, always my first sign of spring.

    1. What a relief it must be to have that snow gone. Getting a wave from the daffodils is a plus; it won’t be long now before full spring arrives. Having longer hours of sunlight’s great, too. You still should have longer days to enjoy once your move’s accomplished — perhaps that will mean good light for painting whatever inspires you once you start looking around your new world!

  9. Thanks for a trip down memory lane Linda. I grew this many years ago, and that was in sandy soil in a 350ml rainfall zone. It was hardy under those conditions. So nice to see this old friend again in your beautiful photos.

    1. There are certain plants I feel the same way about; they’re old friends, and their reappearance each year evokes the kind of delight that makes certain of my human friends roll their eyes. The little beautyberry leaves were as delightful as the flowers and berries will be in the future. Being able to see such tiny things through my macro lens is a marvel — and focusing on them provides some good isometric exercise as well.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, Gerard. Your Mexican Fuchsia is equally beautiful. I’m so accustomed to thinking of fuchsias as coral/red/orange that the purple was quite a surprise. If I had the sun for it, I’d be tempted toward giving that one a try. You must smile every time you look at it. It’s a purple people pleaser!

  10. I had a very nice beautyberry at the city house and I dug it up in August when the house sold and planted it out here and it basically went to ground. it has grown barely, hardly at all. and still not little green leaves. if it’s not dead I’ll have to move it again because it is clearly not happy where it is.

    1. I gave a friend a Cape Honeysuckle and she had to move it a couple of times before she found the spot that it liked. It’s funny how conditions can vary, even in the limited space of a yard. I hope you can coax your beautyberry into flourishing. Your birds certainly would be pleased.

  11. What a beautiful colour those berries are too.

    Great shots of the plant, its flowers and berries. Superb light making that shot of the leaf bud particularly good.

    1. I was able to shoot that tiny leaf by using the trunk of the tree as a dark background. In most of the photos, the light on the leaf was too harsh, but it was a partly cloudy day, and eventually a cloud moved overhead. That took care of the hot spots that had been a problem.

      I think these berries are among the most attractive in nature. The color can range from a bit more pinkish to a truly deep purple, even when they’re mature, but they’re all pretty.

    1. Resilience is breakout out all over now. There are budding trees and shrubs, and the occasional flower is in full bloom. If nothing else, harsh conditions bring a reminder that the life force is strong.

  12. I think that native plants are generally pretty resilient and can deal with severe conditions from time to time. We may observe frost damage on the portion of the plant above the ground, but there is a lot going on beneath the soil which more critical to the long-term survival of a plant, though inflorescence or fruiting may be impaired for a season. The berries look so appealing! I would love to try them.

    1. You’re certainly right about the differences in above and below ground growth after our recent freeze. Plants like the anemones, cannas, and lilies, that grow from corms or bulbs, are sprouting right up. Even the garden cannas I saw yesterday have put on leaves more than a foot tall. On we go!

      I’ve never tried the beautyberries ‘straight’ — I’ve only had them in jelly. They aren’t toxic; Native Americans used them in a tea, and I’m sure they’ve been used in other ways, too. This year, I’ll have to sample one and see how it tastes.

    1. I understand that hunger for color. Now that the uniqueness of snow and ice is long gone, the pleasure of gray, black, and mushy brown is getting old quickly. Here’s to more color in the world!

  13. They are beauties. Delightful to think that each “wad” of berries was once a cluster of those delicate flowers. One might, at first glance, mistake the berries as being purple, but they’re really a very dark shade of plum pink — or at least they are in your photograph. A tight crop of the blossom pix blown up to “sofa picture” size would be lovely.

    1. It is fun to see the different stages of growth next to one another. You’re right about the color, too. The newly forming berries I’ve seen begin as a pinkish-white, then darken as they age. The older the berry, the darker the color, or so it seems. Occasionally I see very dark purple berries: usually on stems where half of the berries already have been eaten. Perhaps the color’s an indicator to birds that the buffet is open.

    1. Share and share alike, as the saying goes. A buffet for the birds, and beauty for our eyes. Speaking of resilient plants, I thought of you yesterday when I came across a patch of henbit growing next to the sidewalk in a marina. I think I remember you mentioning your struggles with that one, pulling it out now and then. The henbit was growing with white clover and sow thistle as companions. Saw what we will about the weeds, they’re true survivors.

    1. It’s one of my favorite plants. The berry color is one reason, of course, but the flowers are equally appealing. I found my first beautyberry in Oklahoma, and then discovered them in Arkansas. I’ve known they were thick in east Texas, but I didn’t realize they were part of ‘my’ refuges until recently. I’m crossing my fingers for the one at the base of the San Bernard oak to prosper.

    1. I didn’t realize the plant was grown over there. I’ve only had the berries made into jelly, and from what I’ve heard they’re better for syrup, wine, and jelly. You wouldn’t want them atop your cereal, I don’t think. I’m looking forward to trying one or two plain myself, this year.

    1. Have you see the palms down by the Target and Home Depot? If those come back, we’ll be well on our way to a far more lush summer. I found ferns coming up everywhere around here. I’m going to get out and clean out the beds; I’m sure the yard crew won’t. Even better? I found snails munching on them this morning. A flower for every bee, and a fern for every snail. That’s beautiful, too.

      1. Green stuff is pushing through everywhere ( but we could use a bit of light rain…dry summer ahead?)
        Fingers crossed a bit of green showing on our tall fan palms – there’s an old neglected one under power lines near CVS that I’ve always liked as an old dowager lady in long skirts – thought it was done for, but at last passing, it seems to have some life left. Some of the old ones would be really missed if they don’t make it – like the ones by Target. Trees make such a difference.

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