Floridata Article

Pulsating Purple in the Fall Meadow

Beautyberry, one of the purples in Ginny's meadows. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Beautyberry sports unbelievably brilliant magenta berries!

As summer winds down and flowers in the meadows fade, color provided by an assortment of berries is appreciated by birds and humans alike.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) with its unbelievably brilliant magenta berries is native to this region. We have some occurring naturally in the edges of the woods on our property in the back. I've moved several small bushes to an semi-shaded area out front and even ones with very little root survived.

Also new individuals have volunteered in areas where I've cleared the vines and brambles at the edge of wooded areas. They were sowed by the mockingbirds, no doubt. I've watched beautyberry stems droop to the ground as mockingbirds pick off the berries one-by-one.


The beautyberry flower are quite subtle. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
The beautyberry flowers are quite subtle.

The flowers are pretty, but not nearly as noticeable as those pulsating magenta berries. Some people claim that beautyberry jelly is good, but it seems like a lot of work because the berries are small and the seed takes up most of the volume. I'm more inclined to enjoy the berries on their branches and let the birds have them.

It's been found that beautyberry produces three insect repellent chemicals: callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. So the old folklore of crushing the leaves on your skin to repel mosquitoes has merit. Here's an article on finding insect repellent chemicals in beautyberry.


Dark purple berries of pokeweed. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Dark purple berries of pokeweed.

A pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) plant has grown to nearly twenty feet tall where it leans on an oak tree at the far side of the drainfield mound. A third of it has broken under its own weight where it was not leaning on the tree. The official descriptions of this plant peg the height as up to 10 feet. I guess they didn't consider our long growing season here in Florida or that it might lean on a tree for support. Even now in November, it continues to grow, bloom, and produce its dark purple berries.

I've seen various species of birds eating the berries, and purple deposits polka dot the cement driveway under trees where those birds perch near this plant. It's a desirable weed for your wildlife garden.

I've done my share of foraging over the years, but I've never been tempted by pokeweed, because you need to catch it early in the season before the poisons build up in the stem so you can cut it off and eat it like asparagus. You also can eat the young greens, but you must boil them twice and throw out the first water to get rid of the toxins: this has been called poke sallet, an old English term for cooked greens. I always thought people were saying, "poke salad," but that didn't make any sense because you'd never eat the uncooked greens. The root and the seeds are the most toxic parts of the plant.

The top of the plant will die back after the first frost, but the root, which looks like a big sweet potato, survives and sends up new shoots in the spring. Each year the plant gets larger. Native Americans took full advantage of pokeweed, using the plant medicinally and employing the berries and stems for dye and for painting their horses. Supporters for James Polk, our eleventh president, reportedly wore pokeweed leaves around their necks. The common name is sometimes spelled, "Polk."


Elderberry flowerheads in the meadow. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
Elderberry flower heads in the meadow.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) has volunteered in several shaded spots in our back meadows. We've enjoyed the wonderful white flower heads, but the birds eat the berries as fast as they are produced. I guess I won't be making any elderberry wine from those purple/black berries.

These shrubs grow quickly and once a thicket is formed from their rhizomes, they can become a stately hedge. Right now, mine are looking scraggly and unkempt in the meadows, so I may prune them back to a better shape. In colder climates, elderberries are deciduous, but here in north Florida, they seem to not mind the light frosts and continue to stay green and bloom.

Elderberries are native to both Europe and North America and have a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans and Europeans. The raw berries have poisonous residues, but cooking destroys both its poisons and vitamin C. The core of the wood is soft and people used to carve whistles or flutes from it, but warnings have been issued that these whistles may have poisoned the players. So, let the birds compete for the berries and leave this one off your plate.


The wax myrtle berries have a thick, waxy coating. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
The wax myrtle berries have a thick, waxy coating

Okay, the berries of the southern bayberry or wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) aren't really purple, but some people might say that their gray, waxy coating has a slight lavender cast. I included them in this list of purple-berried plants because groups of white-eyed vireos and gold finches have been busy gorging themselves recently.

This easy-to-grow and wide-ranging native shrub has root nodules, like a legume, that fix atmospheric nitrogen: this provides fertilizer in poor soils. It's tolerant of drought or standing water (either brackish or fresh). It will grow back after a fire, too. It was already growing on our lot, but I've successfully transplanted it to new areas to provide more cover and privacy.

You may use it in the landscape as a hedge or a specimen plant. It takes to pruning to produce a thick privacy screen and bird nesting sites. Native Americans, including Seminoles, used this plant for medicinal purposes, plus they used it as an insect repellent. They surrounded their home sites with it and placed branches under their beds to keep fleas away. They also places twigs in their flour to keep out the weevils. Early European settlers boiled the wax from the berries to make candles. The northern species (M. pennsylvanica) has more wax and is usually the source for those wonderful smelling holiday bayberry candles.


The asters are popular with pollinators. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
The asters are popular with pollinators.

One last lavender in the meadow right now is the bushy aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum). The bees are loving it. Many of these delicate and late-flowering plants have volunteered in meadows and other garden areas. It grows to about five feet tall, but as the flowers develop, the stems sag creating a lovely, if ungainly, arching boughs. Some of you might even have pulled it out as a weed.

Cultivars of this aster include dwarf varieties with more exciting color of the ray florets. When you purchase the Michaelmas daisy, it is a cultivar of this species. The native, tall variety is fine with me. It makes quite a show in my fall landscape.

Do you have purple and lavender in your landscape this fall? If you do, enjoy the show as the birds flock to your lot throughout the cooler weather.

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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