If you have ever seen a beautyberry in fruit, you are not likely to forget it. The brilliant, iridescent purple berries that cluster along the stems of Callicarpa dichotoma and C. japonica in late summer and fall will stop you in your tracks. I can’t think of another plant that sports such an arresting, audacious color. Carolyn Ulrich, editor of Chicagoland Gardening magazine, saw a beautyberry in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at Thanksgiving a few years ago, and wondered, “What is that?” To her surprise (and delight) she learned that it grows in Zones 5 and 6. An enterprising landscaper has installed a couple in my city neighborhood. I have to have some.
Easy Does It
Care of shrubs is pretty simple.
• Most flowering and fruiting shrubs prefer evenly moist, well-drained soil and full sun.
• Fertilizing isn’t usually necessary, but an occasional or even an annual scattering of a low-nitrogen feed can be beneficial.
• Water shrubs well and regularly in their first season. After that, water as you do the rest of the garden.
• Callicarpas should be pruned hard in March or April every year. Some experts say prune to the ground; others prefer to leave 5 to 6 inches. In the warmer microclimates at Fernwood, Bornell prunes back only to live buds, resulting in a larger specimen.
• Viburnums can be kept smaller and more shapely by judicious pruning of longer stems in early spring.
Berry Happy Together
While a few shrubs, such as most hollies, require a male plant amongst the berry-producing females to assure fruit, many others, callicarpa included, wish for companions rather than lovers. Alone, they fruit sporadically but produce the most berries when a pollinator is planted in close proximity. The best pollinator is of the same species but of a different variety or cultivar. Bloom times should also match for best berry set.
Kunso Kim, head of collections and curator of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., doesn’t hesitate to name Callicarpa dichotoma among his favorites. The most root-hardy callicarpa, it can die back near the ground in winter and still survive. “It has a graceful habit,” says Kim. “The leaves are smaller than the other beautyberries, and the stems are slender, so that when they are covered with fruit, they tend to hang down. Very attractive.” He favors the C. dichotoma cultivar ‘Issai’. Its Japanese name translates into “Second Year.” It produces berries a year or so ahead of other callicarpas. ‘Issai’ and ‘Early Amethyst’ fruit most heavily of all the group. The two are attractive and prolific planted together.
Steve Bornell, manager of plant collections at Fernwood Botanical Gardens & Nature Preserve in Niles, Michigan, adds an endorsement for another C. dichotoma. “This is our first spring with ‘Spring Gold’, which is showing striking green and gold new foliage right now.”
C. japonica can get a bit leggy, but it appreciates being cut back hard in the spring so height and legginess problems can be controlled. Bornell offers this suggestion. “A mixed planting of C. j. ‘Leucocarpa’ and C. d. ‘Issai’ complement each other.”
C. mollis and C. bodinieri var. giraldii are not as hardy as dichotoma and japonica, don’t fruit as heavily and the leaves are larger and tend to obscure the berries. C. americana, native to our South, is not reliably hardy here.
The spring flowers and fall coloring of callicarpas are pleasant though not extraordinary. It’s the berries that are to die for.
Berries and flowers of Blue Muffin™ (Viburnum dentatum)
Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Eye-popping purple isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but fall berries come in so many colors and shades that there should be one for every taste. If you lean toward bright blueberry with a lustrous glow, southern arrowwood Blue Muffin™ (Viburnum dentatum ‘Christum’) is for you. It’s a compact beauty, growing 4 by 4 feet, with splendid white spring flowers, glossy foliage, handsome fall coloring and a profusion of berries that birds adore.
How about pink followed by turquoise? The tall (10- to 15-foot) blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolum) and rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum) also flower beautifully and provide fall fireworks of bright red glossy foliage from which the blue berries (actually drupes) protrude. Ed Lyon, director of the Allen Centennial Garden on the University of Wisconsin- Madison campus, thinks the underused V. prunifolium is tough as nails, with great fruit and excellent fall color. In his part of Wisconsin the callicarpas need a protected site, but the viburnums, especially the haws, scoff at below-zero temperatures.
Lyon urges us also to consider the possumhaw (V. nudum), especially the 6-foot cultivar ‘Winterthur’ that features the same magnificent all-season displays as the other haws, plus huge 4-inch fruits. Kunso Kim loves the possumhaw Brandywine™ (V. nudum ‘Bulk’). “It has glossy leaves that turn rich burgundy in autumn and a breathtaking fruit display. The green drupes change to bright pink, then to bright blue and wild grape.” Brandywine is a fine cross-pollinator for ‘Winterthur’. Most haws will pollinate each other, and all attract bees and butterflies that do the job.
The native fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) and the Chinese species (C. retusus) can barely be considered shrubs at 12 to 20 feet tall. But they bloom so ecstatically and produce such a surfeit of “bloomy” medium-blue fruits beloved of birds that they make a grand addition to a middle-sized or large garden. Since they are dioecious like hollies, only the females produce fruit and require a male in the vicinity to do so. C. virginicus is the hardier of the two, the one suitable for Wisconsin, says Ed Lyon.
Left: Tea Viburnum (Viburnum segiterum) Middle: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) Right: Viburnum dilatum 'Erie'
Red fall berries are archetypal — beacons in October, standouts against the snow in winter like little drops of blood. Luckily, our area supports many shrubs that provide them. Hollies are rivaled by viburnums and some lesser-known plants. Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Ill., thinks no one should be without a highbush cranberry viburnum Redwing® (V. trilobum ‘J.N. Select’). He describes it as “growing thicker than most with a tighter bunching habit, simply lovely blooms, bright red autumn foliage and ruby berries that, as they mature, become translucent. With the sun behind them on a fall day, they are a glorious sight.” Redwing® grows up to 10 feet tall, but one can easily control its size by cutting back the longest stems.
Viburnum Cardinal Candy™
Redwing® American Cranberrybush
The Linden viburnum Cardinal Candy™ (V. dilatatum ‘Henneke’) inspires Kunso Kim to poetic flights. “It’s like manna to bees and butterflies. It’s a nice height, 5 to 6 feet, that can be maintained shorter with pruning, and produces abundant bright red fruits in late summer that still cling to the shrub the next spring when flocks of cedar waxwings come to nibble away. And it gives a good fruit set without cross pollination.”
Steve Bornell praises the Viburnum dilatatum ‘Erie’ growing at Fernwood for its fantastic coral red fruit and adds, “We also have an 8-foot Cotoneaster multiflorus, which sports red berries over red fall foliage — a show stopper along our entry drive.”
For the smaller garden that might be overwhelmed by the statuesque beauties mentioned above, the smaller, sprawling cotoneasters C. horizontalis and C. hessei are great choices. Kunso Kim describes them as having a “fishbone structure,” refined and graceful, just right for spreading over a wall or bank. Their small, dense shiny leaves support and show off the bright red berries.
And the easy-to-grow native aronia or chokeberry should not be overlooked, though Ed Lyon claims that its rock-hardiness causes its overuse in Wisconsin. Says Kunso Kim, “Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ is a shrub that has it all: fruit for the birds; nectar for insects; cover for wildlife and multiseason beauty from its nectar-loaded white to pinkish flowers; dense clusters of glossy red fruit that persists through winter; and brilliant red foliage in autumn.” Cultivars of black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa), especially ‘Morton’ and ‘Iroquois Beauty’, have shiny black berries. “With profuse small white flowers, chokeberry is gorgeous in spring and again in fall with wine-red foliage,” Kim declares. Nothing improves a garden more and gives it better bones than planting shrubs. Add some of these season-prolonging fruiting charmers, many of which have berries that persist through the winter.
A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume 17 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek, Proven Winners, and Bailey Nurseries.