This time of year, the leafless limbs of Callicarpa bodinieri bobble with amethyst berries. The bright clusters are striking in December, when most of the autumn leaves have melted into brown slicks of mush. Any garden flowers that remain — desiccated hydrangea heads, the odd fuchsia bell — have been leached of color. Amid the defeated browns and greens of winter, the berry clusters of Callicarpa, common name “beautyberry,” are stunningly cheerful.
Beautyberry is native to the southern United States but not the northern. Someone planted the shrub that is right now brandishing its showy fruits in Cowen Park, across the street from our apartment. About twenty years ago, I planted the same species in the backyard of a house I would sell a few years later when a relationship ended and a new one began. For some reason, I never planted another beautyberry, even though I had plenty of space at the new house for another one.
That beautyberry grew in the yard of the first house I owned, a little Craftsman bungalow in West Seattle. I had planted tomatoes in pea patches, marigolds in the dirt of a group house, and a full vegetable garden behind a Beverly, Massachusetts, house whose attic my girlfriend and I rented. But the garden in West Seattle, neat rectangles of grass in front and back, was the first to belong to me.
A year before we bought the house, my grandmother, a master gardener, had died and left behind shelves of gardening books. I poached a bunch of them and pored over the photographs and descriptions, identifying plants for my new garden: ceanothus, for its otherworldly blue flowers, native vine maples to screen the neighbors, mock orange for its scent. My girlfriend wanted Russian sage. I paired it with coneflowers.
In the backyard, I made a curved flowerbed border by laying a hose on the grass. I dug a shovel into the sod along the hose and pulled it up. Because plants were not cheap, I divided a few lamb’s ears over several seasons until they flopped all along that hose-drawn line. They bored me after awhile, but they grew quickly and crowded out weeds.
The beautyberry shrub was small and produced only a few clusters of berries every winter, but they were dramatic. It was as if all the spring and summer purples — of the lilacs and iris, of the petunias and asters — had been captured and distilled in those berries. I would walk across the crunchy, frosted grass to the back fence and admire them. And then I moved, suddenly, after falling in love faster than it should be possible, and I never saw those berries again.
At the new house, I didn’t plant a beautyberry. The new yard needed, instead, hydrangeas and sword ferns, fuchsias and spirea. After thirteen years, Arline and I sold that house and moved into the co-op apartment where we live now. It has a common garden. At some point I will take my turn weeding.
The beautyberry in the park reminded me of all my hands have tended over these years. I have put down roots and yanked them out, figuratively and literally, so many times that I often find myself nostalgic for a lost patch of ground.
This is wonderful, thank you for telling about the beautyberry in Cowen Park — I didn’t know about it. Did you know that Albert Balch, developer of the Wedgwood neighborhood, traced his ancestry from the founders of Beverly, Massachusetts? The John Balch house, one of the oldest in the USA is there.
I didn’t know that. How interesting! Thanks for your response.
Thank you for this lovely piece. We’ve been wanting to grow Callicarpa in our garden for many years and will probably plant a couple (2 for better fruit!) in the spring. Sending you a FB message re: botanical nomenclature ( :
I’m so lucky to benefit from your expertise, Rebecca. Thanks!