Callicarpa

It’s always been a cheap thrill of mine to watch jaws drop when gardeners see their first purple-berried callicarpa. Even more satisfying, however, is the chance to turn them on to lesser-known, outstanding species of this genus that are rarely seen in Northwest gardens.

But I’m here to report there’s only one form of purple beautyberry that truly thrives in temperate climates, the very same one savvy Northwest gardeners already grow: Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ (syn. C. bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’).

Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’. Watercolor by René Eisenbart

Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’. Watercolor by René Eisenbart

For reasons only guessed at—no doubt related to the weather, and the absence of a long season of heat—none of the other species berry up quite as reliably as this Dutch selection. And since a callicarpa without good fall berries is like a sugar cone without ice cream, why bother having one at all?

So here I sit with a selection of ludicrously delicious, hand-rolled, chocolate-dipped waffle cones wondering how to get you to bite. The best I can do is offer some delectable food for thought.

Bigger berries: C. americana, the East Coast native beautyberry, is a tall, dramatically coarse, edge-of-woodlands shrub with violet to magenta fruits nearly three times (three times!) the size of ‘Profusion’. When decked out, its branches are completely ringed with glossy baubles, an arresting effect that makes other beautyberries look unreasonably discreet.

Better body: C. dichotoma, the purple beautyberry from Japan and China, is easily the most refined and shapeliest species in the genus. It has a horizontal, tiered habit that makes the plant an asset long before it fruits, when cascades of violet berries the size of BBs dance down its arching arms. It reaches four feet by four feet in a season and roots wherever its tips hit the ground.

Brightest color: C. japonica, the Japanese beautyberry, is also rounded and horizontal, though not quite as elegant. Its primary asset is its metallic purple fruits, a color just a tad weirder than most, set off dramatically by autumn leaves often touched with pink. The white form, C. japonica ‘Leucocarpa’, is considered quite the treasure, particularly when sited at the edge of woods.

Now I’m not saying that if you live in Oregon City you can’t grow any of the above, but you may not be thrilled with the results. Word on the block is, they’re duds. And though I might have at first dismissed the overused ‘Profusion’, I’m now enormously grateful that we in the Northwest have a well-fruiting callicarpa at all.

And what a doer. This Chinese species is in a hurry to grow. It gets off to a very fast start, sending up a strong central leader with side branches that swirl like skirts below its knees. The effect in part shade is lean and gawky—that was my mistake—so give yours full sun. Also, pruning back that dominant leader will help chubby it up early on, but by and large this is a strongly upright, often eight-foot shrub.

‘Profusion’—named for its abundant fruit set—is also in a big hurry to berry. A mere twelve-inch stick quickly becomes four feet by three feet and in its first year is splattered with lilac peas. The berries color up in early September on the heels of the plant’s sweet but innocuous lavender flowers, which are common to all callicarpa species but only faintly ornamental, and certainly no match for the berries to come.

So who cares if the tireless ‘Profusion’ is not the most gorgeous beautyberry in cultivation? It’s still purple. And that’s what the kallos (beauty) in the karpos (fruit) is all about.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Plant This, a delightful new book by spirited writer, Ketzel Levine, published in summer 2000 by Sasquatch Books.