Arkansas Nature Trivia

The American Beautyberry: A Possible Mosquito Repellent

The American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), also known as French Mulberry, is a deciduous bush that reaches a height of over two meters (well over six feet). The leaves are large, but the most obvious feature of the plant is the clusters of purplish drupes (berry-like fruits) that become evident in the fall. The flowers that produced those fruits are inconspicuous. Several clusters of fruits surround the stems at intervals of several inches. Each drupe is only about 3 to 6 mm (1/8 to 1/4 inch) wide, but the group of drupes may be about 40 mm (1.5 inches) wide. Each drupe contains four seeds. After the leaves fall, the fruits adorn the plant well into winter and are very visible to birds searching for food. The genus name, Callicarpa, is derived from Greek and means "beautiful fruit."

The plant is very drought tolerant and grows in a variety of soils, but it is best suited to rich woods in at least partially shaded locations. It can be common along forest edges and fence rows, and the stems resprout well after a fire. If used as an ornamental plant, stems should be cut near the ground early in the spring to produce the best crop of fruits. Flowers, and later fruits, develop on stems that grew since the previous winter. Birds such as bobwhites, towhees, cardinals, and mockingbirds are known to take the fruit, but often these fruits are not taken until late winter when other foods have been exhausted. Deer, armadillos, rodents, raccoons, and opossums feed on the plant. The beautyberry has a reputation as a folk remedy. A crushed leaf rubbed on the skin supposedly deters ticks, ants, and mosquitoes. A chemical called callicarpenol extracted from the plant has been studied as a possible insect repellent by the USDA, at a facility housed at the University of Mississippi. Other ethnobotanical uses have included use of the root bark as a diuretic, and for treatment of dysentery and stomachaches. Also, a tea made from the roots and berries had been used to treat colic.