Com­mon beau­ty­berry has daz­zling fruit, is beloved by birds and may keep bugs away

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Lowcountry life - BY VICKY MCMIL­LAN

If you aren’t al­ready fa­mil­iar with beau­ty­berry, you prob­a­bly won’t for­get this plant once you see it laden with fruit.

Through­out the sum­mer, it’s a fairly non­de­script, sprawl­ing shrub with el­lip­ti­cal, green leaves and small, whitish or pink­ish flow­ers. But in the fall, beau­ty­berry trans­forms it­self, pro­duc­ing an abun­dance of vividly col­ored fruits in clus­ters along the stems.

Th­ese berries are a star­tling shade of ma­genta or pur­ple, and they make the plant fairly jump out from the land­scape.

Even af­ter beau­ty­berry’s leaves drop in the win­ter, the color­ful fruits per­sist on the branches – un­less they’re eaten by rac­coons, opos­sums, squir­rels, foxes or ar­madil­los, or by a va­ri­ety of song­birds.

A mem­ber of the mint fam­ily, beau­ty­berry is one of some 165 species of Cal­li­carpa, a group of shrubs and small trees, most of which oc­cur in Asia.

Amer­i­can beau­ty­berry (Cal­li­carpa amer­i­cana), our na­tive Low­coun­try species, is found through­out the south­east­ern U.S. in woods and bot­tom­lands, and along the edges of swamps and thick­ets.

It’s also a pop­u­lar gar­den plant, along with sev­eral re­lated, in­tro­duced species, in­clud­ing a few cul­ti­vars that have white berries.

Amer­i­can beau­ty­berry has a long his­tory of use in folk medicine. The roots, leaves and fruit were used to make var­i­ous de­coc­tions to treat fever, malaria, dysen­tery, rheuma­tism, colic and many other ail­ments.

I’ve never been tempted to sam­ple the berries, but sources re­port they are edi­ble, though as­trin­gent and not par­tic­u­larly tasty. They’re said to make a good jelly, though, and there are lots of recipes on the in­ter­net.

The berries can also be used as a fab­ric dye.

The most promis­ing use of Amer­i­can beau­ty­berry may be as an in­sect re­pel­lent. Crush­ing the leaves and ap­ply­ing them to the skin has long been a tra­di­tional field rem­edy for re­lief against bit­ing in­sects.

Re­cently, sci­en­tists at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Nat­u­ral Prod­ucts Re­search, based at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi, have ex­tracted sev­eral sub­stances – cal­li­carpe­nal, in­ter­medeol, bor­neol and spathu­lenol – that are key in pro­duc­ing this ef­fect.

Re­search con­tin­ues on tox­i­c­ity lev­els, as well as cost-ef­fec­tive meth­ods for pro­duc­ing a cal­li­carpe­nal-based in­sect re­pel­lent for com­mer­cial mar­kets.

VICKY MCMIL­LAN Spe­cial to The Is­land Packet/ The Beau­fort Gazette

Crush­ing the leaves of beau­ty­berry and ap­ply­ing them to the skin has long been a tra­di­tional field rem­edy for re­lief against bit­ing in­sects.

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