How to use American beautyberries as food and mosquito repellent

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is an attractive, common landscape shrub native to the southeastern US. It produces edible berries that can be turned into very tasty recipes and leaves that can be used an effective insect repellent. Learn all about beautyberries in this article!

Last fall we were at a friend’s house who is an adventuresome eater, but hasn’t yet familiarized herself with the abundance of edible food plants that can be found growing wild in most home landscapes.

In her front yard, I quickly pointed out some of the edible plants she was unintentionally growing: wild garlic, chickweed, sheep sorrel, and beautyberries, among others.

Though we skipped grazing the wild garlic in order not to make our breath offensive, we sampled the other edibles. Sheep sorrel tastes like lemons. Chickweed tastes like corn silk.

Then we moved on to the beautyberries, which she — like many others — had planted as a landscape plant, completely oblivious to its edibility.

The berries were bright purple and at peak ripeness. She nibbled a few and exclaimed, “wow, those are really unique!” Indeed.

What do raw beautyberries taste like?

Raw fresh beautyberries have a very unique flavor that’s hard to compare to anything else: they’re mildly sweet and have spicy notes somewhat similar to Asian five spice. Something we’e also come to learn about beautyberries: different species have different flavors:

  • American beautyberries are generally much more intensely spice flavored and less sweet;
  • Asian beautyberries (more on those below) are generally much less intensely spice flavored but more sweet (better for fresh eating but not as good for cooked recipes).

Generally speaking, beautyberries aren’t something you’ll want to eat by the handful like blackberries or strawberries, but they can be used to make a number of very tasty and unusual recipes, a few of which we’ll detail in this article.

But first we want to provide some additional information for anyone interested in finding, growing, or using beautyberries — which are also an important plant for native wildlife…

An introduction to beautyberries (Callicarpa)

Different species of beautyberries grow around the world, from Asia to South America to Australia. In fact, there are at least 140 species of Callicarpa globally.

How can you tell American beautyberries from non-native beautyberries?

The most common beautyberries you’ll see in North America are native American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) and imported Asian beautyberries (C. bodinieri, C. dichotoma, C. japonica).

You might have spotted a beautyberry plant and are now wondering: How do you tell American beautyberries apart from non-native Asian beautyberries? Here’s what we’ve found:

  1. Fruit ripening time – American beautyberries fully ripen later than non-native beautyberries. For instance, some Asian beautyberry plants we harvest from are fully ripe by late August-early September, whereas American beautyberries won’t fully ripen until October. (*Fully ripen meaning all fruit on the plant is lilac in color and ripe.)
  2. Fruit cluster structure – Asian beautyberries feature loosely formed berry clusters on peduncles/stems that visibly dangle off of the main branch. American beautyberries form tight clusters wrapped right around the main branch (no visible peduncles). This feature is the easiest way to distinguish between native and non-native beautyberries when they’re fruiting.
  3. Plant and leaf size – American beautyberry plants are larger and more upright than Asian species which tend to be shorter with arching branches. American beautyberry leaves also tend to be longer than Asian species (3-6″ inches long vs. 1-3″ long), but this is not always the case from what we’ve seen.
  4. Berry flavor – As mentioned earlier, American beautyberries tend to be more intensely spice-flavored and less sweet than Asian species.

Note that these distinctions are generalizations that may not always hold true. That’s because there are numerous beautyberry species, sub-species, and hybrids.

All about American beautyberries

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana).

American beautyberries are native to the southeastern United States, and their range also extends into the Caribbean and northern Mexico. We seldom see them growing wild in our area, but they’re a very popular local landscape plant due to:

  • how easy they are to grow (as most native plants are),
  • their attractive growth habit, and
  • their attractive showy berries which stay on the plant through winter, long after the leaves have dropped.

Beautyberry growing conditions

Beautyberries mature to about 5′ tall x 5′ wide, but we’ll occasionally see them growing to larger sizes in ideal conditions.

The plants prefer full sun, but can tolerate part shade. As a mid-stage succession plant, they don’t grow well in full shade, such as under the canopy of large trees. Rich, well-draining soil is ideal, but here again, the plant is versatile and can grow in a wide variety of soil types and conditions.

If you’re growing beautyberries in your yard or garden, don’t bother to amend your soil before planting. Instead, just maintain a 3-5″ layer of wood chips/mulch on the soil surface, and they’ll stay happy and healthy.

In ideal conditions, a beautyberry plant can live for decades.

Are beautyberries drought-tolerant?

Last summer, we were curious how the native wild edible plants in our area would fare under brutally hot and dry conditions. We had virtually no rain for 8 weeks, and temperatures stayed in the low-mid 90s throughout the drought.

We checked on a nearby native passionfruit patch, which was loaded with fruit and flowers, showing very little stress. About 50 yards away: the spot we go to get beautyberries each fall.

Under midday heat and sun the beautyberries’ leaves looked slightly limp, but the plants were still loaded with berries, which looked just as large and abundant as they would under more normal weather conditions. In short: yes, beautyberries are very drought tolerant.

The only reason we don’t grow beautyberries in our yarden is because we have limited space and there are spots where we can get all the beautyberries we want or need within a few miles of our home.

When do beautyberry plants flower and fruit? When do you pick beautyberries?

From late spring through early summer, beautyberry plants are covered in small clusters of inconspicuous flowers ranging in color from white to pink to purple. The flowers are quite popular with native pollinators (especially native bees), so you’ll enjoy a pleasant humming sound if you approach a beautyberry plant in flower.

The berries ripen from green to a bright purple color in late summer-early fall. Berry clusters should be completely purple when picked, which means American beautyberry picking season starts in October where we live (Greenville, SC / Ag zone 7b). As mentioned previously, Asian varieties ripen earlier and we’ve harvested them as early as late August.

Beautyberries can be harvested through the winter up until they turn brown.

Beautyberry harvesting tip

As a newbie, you might consider being a dainty beautyberry picker – pulling off individual berries from the bush. This will be an arduous process given how small and densely clustered the berries are.

Instead, here’s how we pick gallons of beautyberries in a matter of minutes: one person holds a harvest basket underneath a beautyberry branch while the other person strips off entire clusters with one hand and holds the branch steady with the other. Move to the next branch and continue.

Yes, this will result in some leaves ending up in your harvest basket but those can easily be removed later.

Warning: Some people can have an allergic reaction to beautberry leaves. Be aware of this possibility and tread lightly your first time picking beautyberries until you know you’re not allergic. You may also want to wear a long-sleeved shirt and gloves.

Grow native beautyberries to help support native wildlife

Native plants tend to have long-established, mutually beneficial relationships with native animals. That’s why birds such as cardinals, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds, eat beautyberries throughout the winter. These birds then poop out beautyberry seeds far and wide, helping the next generation of beautyberries spread.

Apparently, beautyberry leaves are quite popular with deer, so if you grow them in your yard, you may need to take extra precautions to keep deer out.

Beautyberries are also a host plant for native moth species and make an ideal overwintering habitat for other insect species. You can often find Carolina mantis egg casings stuck to beautyberry stems and branches.

Growing beautyberries from seed or cuttings

Beautyberries can easily be propagated from cuttings or grown from seed. They’re also commonly found at local nurseries if you want to get an older plant.

a. Growing beautyberries from cuttings

Cut 6-8″ stems from mature beautyberry plants in the late winter ~6-8 weeks before the plant has broken dormancy. Dip bottom 3″ in rooting hormone, then stick in small container filled with damp potting soil.

Store outdoors and make sure the soil remains damp, but not wet. Roots will establish by spring and you can transplant the young plants into their final spots in the fall.

b. Growing beautyberries from seed

Collect past-ripe beautyberries in the winter. Remove seeds and store in fridge over winter.

In early spring, sow seeds 1/4″ deep in small containers with seed starting mix. Keep damp. Seeds should germinate within 2-3 weeks. Place containers outdoors in sunny spot after germination. Keep watered through summer.

Transplant into final outdoor spot in the fall — or pot up to bigger container and transplant larger plants in year two.

Using beautyberry leaves as an insect repellent

Even the most avid nature lovers (us included) despise mosquitos and ticks. We use Bt dunks to keep mosquitos out of our yard, but what to do to keep mosquitos and ticks off of you while you’re hiking or foraging?

Crush beautyberry *leaves in your hand and rub them on yourself. Or make a beautyberry leaf salve/lotion. The result: a natural, highly effective single-ingredient mosquito and tick repellent. (*Here again, before you go all-in with this remedy note that beautyberry leaves do cause contact dermatitis/allergic reactions in some people, so tread lightly before you know how you’ll react.)

No, this isn’t just a folk remedy. This information comes courtesy of USDA researchers. Excerpt:

“Traditional folklore remedies many times are found to lead nowhere following scientific research,” he [Charles Cantrell, an ARS chemist in Oxford] continued. “The beautyberry plant and its ability to repel mosquitoes is an exception. We actually identified naturally occurring chemicals in the plant responsible for this activity.”

Three repellent chemicals were extracted during the 12-month study: callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. The research concluded that all three chemicals repulse mosquitoes known to transmit yellow fever and malaria.

Yet another reason to grow or forage for beautyberries!

For the record, I also crush fresh catnip leaves in my hands, rub it on my skin, and find it also repels mosquitos, so beautyberries aren’t the only plant you can grow with strong insect/mosquito-repellent compounds. (Read our interview: From the scientists: how to use catnip as a mosquito repellent.)

How to eat beautyberries

As mentioned throughout this article, yes, beautyberries are indeed edible. They’re just not something you’ll want to eat raw by the handful. However, they are quite good once cooked and properly prepared.

Preparing beautyberries for recipes

Our favorite thing to do with beautyberries is to make a concentrated beautyberry “juice” that we then use to make into other beautyberry recipes. Here’s how:

1. Put equal quantities of fresh beautyberries and water into a pot on your stove (example 5 cups beautyberries and 5 cups water).

2. Bring to low boil for about 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes.

3. First strain – Strain through metal pasta strainer to remove seeds and skin.

4. Second strain into jars – Strain through finer strainer when pouring into jars for storage.

5. Put jars of beautyberry juice in the fridge. These can be stored for up to a month. You can also make beautyberry ice cubes, then put the ice cubes into freezer bags for long-term storage.

What does the base unsweetened beautyberry concentrate/juice taste like? Almost exactly like hibiscus roselle tea (from Hibiscus sabdariffa). Tangy, slightly sweet, with interesting slightly spicy and bitter notes at the end.

Beautyberry nutritional content

While there’s no available data we’ve seen on beautyberry nutrition, our guess — based on the berries’ flavor and color — is that beautyberries:

  • have very high Vitamin C levels (tang),
  • contain high concentrations of other vitamins and minerals,
  • have high levels of carbohydrates, like other berries (sweet),
  • have very high fiber content (if eaten raw with seeds and skin),
  • contain high levels of beneficial antioxidant compounds, which give them their purple color.

Beautyberry recipes:

You can use your concentrated beautyberry juice (using instructions above) as a base for all sorts of beautyberry recipes, such as:

  • beautyberry tea
  • beautyberry sauces (really good on white fish, pork, poultry, etc)
  • beautyberry jelly
  • beautyberry jello
  • beautyberry wine
  • beautyberry sorbet

Recipe: Beautyberry tea

I’m happily drinking a cup of beautyberry tea as I write!

Beautyberry tea is quite simple to make. Heat 1/2 cup beautyberry juice (using our concentrated beautyberry juice recipe from above) with 1/2 cup water. Add a bit of sweetener (like stevia powder or honey), and enjoy. As mentioned earlier, beautyberry tea tastes almost identical to hibiscus tea: tangy and citrusy.

We’ve never done it, but you could also probably get good results by drying whole beautyberries, then using them as a tea flavoring.

Fermented crabapple-beautyberry cider

Want to make a delicious, seasonal fermented cider with beautyberries and crabapples?

Recipe: Beautyberry jello

Given the beautiful purple color of beautyberries, they lend themselves well to recipes such as jellies and jellos. Beautyberry jelly recipes abound on the internet, so we won’t bother replicating that recipe here.

However, we will teach you exactly how to make a good beautyberry jello recipe!

Below are some process photos to help you if you’re making this recipe for the first time. Below the photos, you’ll find the recipe with ingredients and instructions:

Now you know how to forage or grow beautyberries, use beautyberry leaves as an insect/mosquito repellent, and use beautyberries as a food. We hope you enjoy this delightful native plant!


Other helpful articles you might enjoy:

  • From the scientists: how to use catnip as a mosquito repellent
  • How to safely kill mosquitoes in your yard without poison
  • Beginner’s guide to foraging: 12 rules to follow
  • How to start a garden today: top-10 tips
  • Gift guide for home chefs and anyone who loves to cook

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