Callicarpa

Its brightly-coloured berries make this plant a truly memorable genus, says Miranda Kimberley.

Callicarpa dichotoma 'Issai' Image: Flickr/Jennifer
Callicarpa dichotoma 'Issai' Image: Flickr/Jennifer

Callicarpa is not a widely known genus, but once people have seen its vibrant purple berries, they do not forget it in a hurry. The name comes from the Greek for "beautiful berry", reflected in its common name in the USA, beautyberry. The most popular variety sold in the UK, Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' Award of Garden Merit (AGM), is outstanding, but other options should not be overlooked.

There are a staggering number of species across Asia and America - anything between 40 and 150. These are all trees and shrubs, the temperate species being deciduous and the tropical species evergreen. Those available in the UK are neatly formed, deciduous shrubs that reach 1-3m. Their main feature is the clusters of small, brightly-coloured fruits that are borne along the length of the stems in autumn.

The most striking berries appear on C. americana and C. bodinieri, in shades of rose, mauve, violet and blue. 'Profusion' tends to be preferred to the straight species because it fruits well on its own, whereas several plants of the species need to be grown together to produce good crops. 'Profusion' has bronze-purple juvenile foliage and pale pink flowers, followed by their piece de resistance - dense clusters of purple berries. They form in mid autumn and persist on the bare stems after the leaves have fallen.

There are species that bear more subtle pale berries, including the white-fruited C. americana var. lactea, C. japonica 'Leucocarpa' and C. japonica f. albibaccata; the light pink-berried C. kwangtungensis; the pale lilac/white C. mollis and the lilac-berried C. cathayana. Certain types have variegated foliage. C. japonica 'Koshima-no-homate', for example, has marbling all over the leaf.

All of the deciduous shrubs are fully hardy, down to -18 degsC, though C. mollis does best if given the shelter of a south-facing wall. They like fertile, well-drained soil in full or dappled sunlight. If planted in quite strongly alkaline soil, the leaves will turn yellow. The shrubs can be trimmed lightly and a quarter of their growth pruned out in early spring when the buds begin to swell. To ensure effective pollination and a good crop of berries, it is best to plant them in groups.

The berries last well into the winter and provide a food source for birds and animals. Luckily for gardeners though, they will not eat them until other sources are depleted - perhaps because the berries are highly astringent. They can be made into wine and jelly, and those of C. americana in particular also contain chemicals that repel mosquitoes and ticks. The US Department of Agriculture is currently developing products that make use of this.

WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY

JOANNE McCULLOCK, partner, Larch Cottage Nurseries, Cumbria "The purple berries of the popular variety C. 'Profusion' are very striking - there is nothing else that colour. But the genus has less well known species too, which offer a range of attractive features.

"C. japonica f. albibaccata has lovely white berries and fresh green leaves, while C. japonica 'Koshima-no-homate' is a variegated variety, with marbling all over the leaf.

"Other species that stand out for me are C. cathayana, which has distinct leaves and soft lilac berries, and C. kwangtungensis, with its narrow foliage and light-pink berries. Callicarpa are easy shrubs to grow. They like sun, are happy in any well drained soil and don't mind being chopped back."

SIMON LORD, plant centre manager, Johnsons of Whixley, Chobham, Surrey "The only one we've sold over the last ten years is C. 'Profusion'. I would say 'Profusion' makes up about 95 per cent of the Callicarpa in trade in the UK. It's not a big seller for us, though it's a very nice plant.

"We offer it on a framed trellis, in a 14-litre pot. It's a lax shrub and makes a good wall plant. It lends itself to tying back to a frame, making a feature of its purple berries. We also sell it in smaller pots too."

IN PRACTICE

DAN BOWYER, director, Fisher Tomlin "It's not a plant I use that often, though they do produce incredible berries, which are strong in tone. Something like Pyracantha fruits well too, but their red, yellow or orange berries cannot compare with the striking violet colour of those produced by C. 'Profusion'.

"Callicarpa shrubs become quite tall and large, so they are best planted at the back of a border, as a backdrop for other plants, until the berries stand out in late autumn and become a feature of their own. That makes them useful for winter gardens. Also, they fruit better when planted in groups."

SPECIES AND VARIETIES

  • C. americana is a shrub around 2m tall that bears berries in autumn varying from rose-pink, red-violet to blue. Vies with C. bodinieri for the crown of most attractive berried ornamental plant. Jelly can be made from the fruit.
  • C. americana var. lactea is the white-berried form. Rarely found in this country and sold as C. americana 'Alba'.
  • C. bodinieri is a shrub up to 3m tall with violet berries. Has pubescent stems and leaves. Hardier than C. americana.
  • C. bodinieri var. giraldii is a deciduous shrub that grows up to 2m. Has glabrous leaves and stems, purple flowers between June and August and mauve or purple fruits from October. Hardy to -20 degsC.
  • C. bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' AGM (H4) produces vibrant purple berries in the autumn after pale pink flowers in midsummer. A deciduous, bushy shrub, its leaves are often bronze-tinged when young then pale green. Height: 1.8m. Spread: 1.9m.
  • C. cathayana is a deciduous, bushy shrub with oval, downy leaves. Tiny star-shaped pinkish-lilac flowers are borne in midsummer, followed by dense clusters of lilac fruits. Height: 2-2.5m.
  • C. dichotoma is a compact shrub that grows up to 1.5m. Clusters of pink flowers are borne in July and followed by deep lilac fruits.
  • C. dichotoma 'Issai' is a deciduous bushy shrub with coarsely serrated, oval, dark-green leaves. Bears spikes of tiny star-shaped pink flowers in July, followed by clusters of deep-lilac fruits. The foliage turns a rich rose purple in autumn. Height: 1.5m.
  • C. japonica is an attractive small shrub with oval leaves. Bears pale pink flowers followed by violet berries.
  • C. japonica 'Leucocarpa' is a white-berried form, growing to 1m.
  • C. japonica var. luxurians is a shrub up to 2m tall with slender branches. The oval leaves are soft green early in the season but turn to a wonderful purple colour in autumn. Pale pink flowers are followed by large clusters of small violet-purple glossy fruit that match the leaves.
  • C. kwangtungensis is an unusual species, native to China. It has white to light-pink flowers followed by small clusters of light-pink berries. Height: 1.5m.
  •  C. mollis is a deciduous medium-sized shrub, up to 2m tall. Has soft, bronze-purple young leaves. Bears red-purple flowers in mid-spring followed by pale lilac/white berries.
  • C. shikokiana is a large shrub up to 2.5m. Features clusters of lilac-purple berries and striking yellow and red foliage colour in the autumn.
  • C. x shirasawana is a deciduous shrub, growing up to 1.5m. Features yellow autumn colour and also bears clusters of lilac berries on bare stems.
  • C. aff. tikusikensis is only available from Crug Farm Plants, which collected the species in Taiwan. It is an arching deciduous shrub, growing up to 3m tall. It has elliptic, serrated leaves, covered in golden stellate hairs, on yellow hairy branchlets. Dense clusters of deep-purple berries in late summer-autumn. Needs shelter from cold winds.

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