Gardening Recipes

How to use American beautyberries as food and mosquito repellent

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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.   

Ripe beautyberries in our harvest basket.

Ripe beautyberries in our harvest basket.

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. 

American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) beginning to ripen from green to purple in late summer in South Carolina.

One of the non-native Asian beautyberry species beginning to ripen from green to purple in late summer in South Carolina. How to tell this isn’t an American beautyberry? The easiest way: more loosely formed fruit clusters on small stems that dangle off the main branch. Long weeping branches (rather than upright branches) also help make the ID. 

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 small stems that dangle from the main branch. American beautyberries form tight clusters wrapped right around the main branch (no dangling stems). This feature is the easiest way to distinguish between native vs non-native when the fruit is ripe. 
  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. 

  1. American beautberry (left) vs Asian beautyberry (right). Note the dense fruit clusters and location of the fruit clusters right around the main branch on the American beautyberry. Asian beautyberries have smaller clusters that form on small stems off of the main branch. Also, the American beautyberry branches are much more upright relative to the weeping branches of Asian beautyberries.

    American beautberry (left) vs Asian beautyberry (right). Note the dense fruit clusters and location of the fruit clusters right around the main branch on the American beautyberry. Asian beautyberries have smaller clusters that form on small stems off of the main branch. Also, the American beautyberry branches are much more upright relative to the weeping branches of Asian beautyberries.

 

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. 

What do beautyberry flowers look like? Beautyberry flowers / beautyberries in bloom - early July in Ag Zone 7b.

Beautyberry flowers – early July in Ag Zone 7b.

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. 

Pregnant Tyrant picking ripe beautyberries.

Pregnant Tyrant picking ripe American beautyberries.

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. 

Perfectly ripe clusters of beautyberries.

Perfectly ripe clusters of beautyberries can easily be stripped off of the plant in their entirety by swiping your hand down the stem of the plant.

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 

Inside each small purple beautyberry, you'll find about four small yellow seeds. Each seed can be used to grow a new beautyberry plant.

Inside each small purple beautyberry, you’ll find about four small yellow seeds. Each seed can be used to grow a new beautyberry plant.

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. 

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 are likely not the only plant in the world with strong insect/mosquito-repellent compounds.       

Beautyberries just starting to turn purple in late August. Even though the berries aren't ripe, the leaves are in perfect shape for using as a mosquito and tick deterrent.

Asian beautyberries turning purple in mid-August. Even though the berries aren’t fully ripe, the leaves are in perfect shape for using as a mosquito and tick deterrent.

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. 

Beautyberry honey jello makes a colorful, tasty seasonal dessert. Beautyberry recipes

Beautyberry honey jello makes a colorful, tasty seasonal dessert. Read on to find out how to make it!

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.  

Your beautyberries will lose their color as you cook them. Don't worry! All that beautiful color stays in the final juice when you strain them.

Your beautyberries will lose their color as you cook them. Don’t worry! All that beautiful color stays in the final juice when you strain them.

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

The first strain removes the beautyberry pulp and seeds.

The first strain removes the beautyberry pulp and seeds.

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

Preparing for a second finer strain to remove any additional sediment as the beautyberry juice is poured into jars.

Preparing for a second finer strain to remove any additional sediment as the beautyberry juice is poured into jars.

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.

A jar of pure beautyberry juice ready for the fridge and future beautyberry recipes!

A jar of pure beautyberry juice ready for the fridge and future beautyberry recipes!

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 looks and tastes almost identical to hibiscus tea made from Hibiscus sabdariffa calyxes.

Beautyberry tea looks and tastes almost identical to hibiscus tea made from Hibiscus sabdariffa calyxes.

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. 

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! 

Beautyberry jello. Beautyberry recipes, beautyberry recipe

Beautyberry jello.

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:  

You'll want to use a high quality gelatin. We like PerfectGel Platinum Gelatin sheets, which is the only platinum level gelatin product available in the US. It has a 230 bloom (the highest bloom strength available).

You’ll want to use a high quality gelatin. We like PerfectGel Platinum Gelatin sheets, which is the only platinum level gelatin product available in the US. It has a 230 bloom (the highest bloom strength available).

 

Using 1/4 cup of the beautyberry juice to rehydrate the cut up gelatin squares.

Using 1/4 cup of the beautyberry juice to rehydrate the cut up gelatin squares.

Here's how to make the double boiler mentioned in the recipe below. Larger pan on bottom with water in it. Smaller pan on top, floating on top of the water. This is an important cooking technique when using temperature-sensitive ingredients like gelatin.

Here’s how to make the double boiler mentioned in the recipe below. Larger pan on bottom with water in it. Smaller pan on top, floating on top of the water. This is an important cooking technique when using temperature-sensitive ingredients like gelatin.

Bringing the beautyberry jello ingredients together in the DIY double boiler.

Bringing the beautyberry jello ingredients together in the DIY double boiler.

beautyberry jello recipe, beautyberry recipe
Print

Beautyberry honey jello

Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keyword: beautyberry, beautyberry gelatin, beautyberry jello, beautyberry recipe
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Cooling time: 2 hours
Total Time: 10 minutes
Servings: 4
Author: Aaron von Frank

A simple, tasty jello recipe made with native beautyberries and honey.    

Ingredients

  • 2 strips gelatin
  • 1 cup beautyberry juice (make using instructions from above)
  • 1/8 cup honey (or to taste)

Instructions

  1. Cut gelatin strips into 1" pieces and place in bowl. Add 1/4 cup of your total beautyberry juice to bowl, stir, and let gelatin fully hydrate (about 10 minutes).

  2. Make a double boiler over low heat by putting water in larger pan on stove and smaller pan inside larger pan (see process photos). Gelatin is fairly heat-sensitive and overheating it can cause it not to set as well, hence the recommendation to use a double boiler. 

  3. Mix 3/4 cup beautyberry juice + honey (to taste) in sauce pan on double boiler. Stir until honey is dissolved. Add gelatin/beautyberry juice mix. Stir for a couple of minutes until all ingredients thoroughly dissolved and mixed together. Taste to make sure it's sweet enough for your liking. 

  4. Pour into baking dish or molds then place into fridge for a minimum of 2 hours before serving.

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! 

American beautyberries are a gorgeous native plant that produce edible berries and mosquito-repellent leaves. Find out how to use beautyberries here! #tyrantfarms #americanbeautyberry #beautyberry #ediblelandscaping #nativeplants #foraging

KIGI,

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Bill Bennett
    September 25, 2021 at 2:56 pm

    Hello Aaron,
    what are possible uses for the cooked seeds? Are they soft enough to make porridge for human consumption?
    Could you feed to the ducks or chickens? I suppose one could dry or ferment them for bird treats. I find that I can take pumpkin, watermelon, amaranth seeds, and make bird treats. I usually cook to kill the seeds, pulse in a food processor, ferment a little and then make suet cakes for the wild birds.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      September 26, 2021 at 12:42 pm

      Hi Bill! Nice to hear from you again and hope you’re well. Thus far, we’ve just composted our strained beautyberry seeds, but you could certainly mix them in to a suet cake for birds. That’s a great idea. I don’t think they’d make a great porridge for human consumption but if you find a way to use them for human food, please check back in to let us know!

  • Reply
    Oak Street Homestead
    May 24, 2021 at 7:11 pm

    In a pinch I once crushed beautyberry leaves rubbed them on my clothing to repel mosquitoes totally works. Now I plant them in my yard.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      May 25, 2021 at 10:39 am

      Nice! Pretty neat to have a plant that produces both mosquito-repellent leaves and fruit that can be made into tasty cooked recipes.

  • Reply
    CJB57
    September 1, 2020 at 9:08 pm

    I have discovered beauty berries growing in abundance on our property and read in your article about using as an insect repellent. I have horses and would love to it out on them and myself of course. You said they could be used to make a salve or lotion but you didn’t say how. Could give me those instructions? Thanks so much it was wonderful reading about this beauty! CJ Burk [email protected]

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      September 2, 2020 at 11:52 am

      Hi CJ! We’ve never used the beautyberry plant as an insect repellent, so we didn’t want to provide instructions given our lack of knowledge/experience on the topic. We were simply sharing the research findings. However, note that you should use the leaves of the plant, not the berries, if you’re going for an insect repellent. You’d probably want to blend the leaves with some water, strain them out, then add melted coconut oil (or something similar) to the extract to create something of a lotion. Since botanicals tend to volatilize rapidly (and decompose) it might be wise to refrigerate the final concoction as well. This is something we’ll experiment with next year and publish the results. If you come up with a good solution in the meantime, please let us know!

  • Reply
    Virginia
    November 8, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Do your ducks every get to enjoy beautyberries? We are thinking of planting a bush in their run and are considering something they can also forage, such as beautyberries.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      November 8, 2019 at 1:36 pm

      We’ve never offered our flock beautyberries, but that’s a great idea. Our flock is oddly finicky about new foods and — unlike most ducks — don’t seem to care for any berries we’ve offered them such as blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Next time we go to our beautyberry spot, we’ll bring some back for a duck trial. You may want to see if your flock likes them as well.

      Either way, beautyberries are a great plant to have in your yard. Even if your ducks don’t like them, you’ll have berries for yourself and leaves you can use as a mosquito repellent.

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