Happy Thanksgiving! Today's post is a fun, quick one that I should have posted in September or October, when the berries were actually ripe. The house hunt was just very time consuming and I never got around to doing the write-up--sorry about that.
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is very easy to identify, easy to spot, and fairly common throughout the South and west into Texas, making it a good plant for new foragers. In addition to finding it in the wild, Beautyberry is also used in landscaping, great for urban and suburban foraging as well.
Identification difficulty: Beginner
Beautyberry IdentificationBeautyberry is a flowering shrub/bush native to the American South, from Florida north to Virginia and Missouri and west to eastern Texas (according to the USDA http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_caam2.pdf). It's also used in landscaping, so don't be surprised if you find it outside of it's natural range, I encountered it first in New Jersey, in a park. (Though much less lush than growing in the South). Birds love the fruit, so bird-lovers especially will put them into their yards.
The shrub has long, slender stems with large, broad leaves (about 3-4 inches accorss and 5-6 inches long) that grow opposite one another on the stem. The most conspicuous aspect of the plant are the berries, which grow clustered, directly on the stem and are a shellac-ed looking BRIGHT magenta. (In the spring, clusters of pale pink flowers will be growing along the stem.) The fruit is some of the most poisonous-looking I have ever seen, but looks are deceiving in this case.
Look a Like PlantsBeautyberry is a flowering shrub/bush native to the American South, from Florida north to Virginia and Missouri and west to eastern Texas (according to the USDA http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_caam2.pdf). It's also used in landscaping, so don't be surprised if you find it outside of it's natural range, I encountered it first in New Jersey, in a park. (Though much less lush than growing in the South). Birds love the fruit, so bird-lovers especially will put them into their yards.
White Fruit: There are several other Callicarpa species which can be found in the US. They all feature clustered growth along the stems, though it may not always be RIGHT up against the stem like with Callicarpa americana. Some varieties can have white berries, but I don't recommend trying those, sources conflict on edibility to begin with, and the white ones are much easier to confuse with potnitally deadly or dangerous look-a-likes. (Watch out for the deadly Doll's Eyes/American Baneberry, images here.)
Closely related species: There are at least two other varieties with magenta fruit: Callicarpa japonica and dichotoma, the Japanese and Amethyst beautyberry. Both are non-native from the Far East and mostly found in landscaping. Though hard to tell apart from each other, they have much narrower leaves then American Beautyberry, and the fruit doesn't cluster dirrectly on the main stem, but rather on a skinny stalk off the main stem. This website has some nice images of Amethyst Beautyberry, for you to compare. Japanese Beautyberry is reported as edible, and I have tried it but found it to be not as good as American Beautyberry (though the one I found was scraggly and in poor shape, which may have had something to do with it); and Amethyst Beautyberry is listed as being too bitter to eat. (I've never found one, myself).
Finally, Porcelain berry has apparently been confused with Beautyberry, though I'm not sure how. Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) has fruit that is occasionally magenta, but more often blue or turquoise (really a stunning color ensemble). Porcelain Berry (distantly related to grapes), is also a vine, not a shrub, and has leaves with a grape/maple shape, nothing like that of the Beautyberry. This website has some nice images of Porcelain Berry. I have found Porcelain berry is completely bland, with an unpleasant aftertaste that reminds me of the air in my high school locker room. Porcelain berry is a highly invasive species that has taken over parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Despite this, some companies still sell the seeds for landscaping, claiming they bring birds and wildlife, while having attractive berries. This is true, but they are also horticultural bullies, difficult to control and homicidally inclined against native wildlife. Consider planing Beautyberry instead, which has all the same positive effects.
The good news is all of these varieties are non-toxic, even marginally edible, so confusing them isn't dangerous, just disappointing--just avoid the white fruit!
Eating and Using American BeautyberryBeautyberry doesn't have a whole ton of flavor, just a mild sweetness offset by a good deal of astringency. For this reason they are much maligned, as you can only eat so many before getting a stomach ache. Despite this, they are especially fun for adults and children alike, as the edible seed within "pop"s when you crunch down on it. I like to think of this textural experience as nature's version of "Pop Rocks" candy, with a sweet/tart flavor (from the astringency) very similar to Nerds candy (the strawberry and grape combo, to be precise). Though I doubt they react at all with Coca Cola, munchy on Beautyberry is a fun, tasty, all-natural snack, and a great way to wean kids off sugared candy.
In addition, Beautyberry has been praised for it's use as a jelly fruit (the cooking process removes astringency) and reported as being used in wine. I would imagine that a fruit leather would be a fun treat for kids, and any preparation which removes astringency and/or adds sugar, would work.
I plan on doing more experiments of my own with the Beautyberry, as soon as I find one that isn't on someone's front lawn :)