Native Shrubs

American Beautyberry

The pale pink blooms of American Beautyberry, Callicarpa Americana, appear in early summer, clustered along the arching branches of this deciduous native shrub. The flowers are highly attractive to pollinators and are followed by showy clusters of bright purple fruit. The purple fruit are edible and favored by birds, like catbirds and mockingbirds, for fall and winter forage.

Beautyberry is tough and easy to grow. It’s not picky about soil conditions and is often found growing naturally in the woods and more wild yards (planted by birds that have feasted on its fruit). It grows in sun and shade, but flowers and fruits best when it gets full, direct sun for at least part of the day. The berries are edible, but mostly flavorless and not sweet. Some industrious folks make a jelly with them – lots of sugar added! They are however, very ornamental and may be used to add a pop of color to cakes, salads, etc. The crushed leaves have been used traditionally stuffed into horse harnesses or rubbed on skin to repel mosquitos. Recently scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research division isolated three beautyberry compounds effective in repelling biting insects: callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. In particular, the callicarpenal proved to be as effective as DEET in fighting mosquitoes. Other tests found beautyberry compounds also repelled ticks and fire ants.

 Beautyberry blooms in the morning light here at Native Nurseries.

Beautyberry blooms in the morning light here at Native Nurseries.

 Clusters of attractive beautyberries. Great food for wildlife. 

Clusters of attractive beautyberries. Great food for wildlife. 

Meet the American Azalea

While growing up in Tallahassee, I began to recognize the arrival of spring by the show of white, pink, and fuchsia blooms of azalea shrubs. The house I grew up in had large, mature azalea hedges with a variety of different blooms. Every spring, my mom would bring in vases full of them and my dad loved to point out the showy shrubs as we drove through town.

I guess I assumed these plants were native, but most likely I never gave it a thought. I didn’t think to differentiate a native plant from a non-native one. The azaleas we are so familiar with are actually transplants from Asia, favored by the horticultural industry for their fast, vigorous, and dense growth of evergreen leaves and large blooms. Curiously, I have found the lack of these more obvious qualities to be what leads our native azaleas their unique beauty.

I was introduced to native azaleas while working my first spring at Native Nurseries, when, to my amazement, the graceful bare branches exploded with clouds of deliciously fragrant blooms in a variety of colors.

 Piedmont azalea in white with pink blush form.  (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

Piedmont azalea in white with pink blush form. (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

The two earliest species to bloom are also our two most common; the Florida flame azalea, Rhododendron austrinum, and the Piedmont azalea, Rhododendron canescens. Because native azaleas are genetically variable, when grown from seed the individual plants within the same species can differ in the shape, size, and colors of bloom. The Piedmonts usually begin blooming first, varying in shades from lightly blushed white to deep pink. The Florida flames follow shortly after in sunny yellows, deep golds, tangerines, and apricot shades.

Unlike their Asian cousins, which stay leafy and green year round, most of our native azaleas are deciduous. This quality makes for a much more impressive show when the leafless branches erupt in masses of color unhindered by distracting foliage. It is a truly breathtaking sight!

Although they are not an ideal choice for the types of hedges Asian azaleas are often used for, our native azaleas are wonderful additions to the landscape nonetheless. They can be used to create a natural privacy screen when mixed with native evergreen shrubs and small trees. I often find them growing in similar situations in the wild, and I find this natural look of mixed deciduous and evergreen native shrubs much more attractive than a formal, screen-like hedge of one non-native evergreen. Those types of plantings are about as appealing as a fence, and our wildlife would agree.

Native mixed plantings allow you to appreciate the progression of the seasons as you watch the individual plants flower and change. Most importantly, our native birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife depend on these plants to provide the food and shelter they desperately need as we continue to replace their natural habitat with barren lawns and non-native plants. Our native plants and wildlife have adapted to rely on each other to meet their specific needs, which non-native plants cannot provide.

Native azaleas are a prime example of this symbiotic relationship. The two species I have mentioned bloom early in spring, when few flowers are available. The fragrant, tubular blooms are perfectly timed to welcome home our hungry hummingbirds returning from their winter migration. In exchange for the nectar rich meal these flowers provide, the hummingbird pollinates the blooms, allowing the plant to produce seed.

These relationships are what make native plants like our wild azaleas not just special, but necessary. If we want to continue to enjoy wildlife like hummingbirds, then we must begin to see our yards as essential pieces of wildlife habitat. Find a spot in your yard for a native azalea or two, and aim to add more native plants every year.

Autumn and Winter Berries Attract Flocks of Birds

 The bright red berries of Yaupon olly provide abundant food for birds and are useful for holiday decorating. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

The bright red berries of Yaupon olly provide abundant food for birds and are useful for holiday decorating. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

Bird feeding is an enjoyable hobby; it gives us many hours of enjoyment watching birds up close just outside the window. However, I get even more satisfaction when I observe a bird dining on berries or seeds of trees and shrubs that we have planted in our yard. At our last home, we planted an American beautyberry shrub outside our bedroom window. Each autumn it produced many bright purple berries. One December morning, my daughter and I watched a hermit thrush, a male and a female cardinal and a whitethroated sparrow all feeding at once in this beautiful shrub. That was a colorful sight I will always remember.

Yaupon holly is another favorite of mine. We often see large flocks of robins and cedar waxwings feasting on its shiny translucent red berries. Weeping yaupon is a cultivated form of yaupon that makes a pretty accent plant in the landscape. Savannah and East Palatka hollies are also stunning this time of year. Plant hollies in sun for best fruit production.

The red fruit of the flowering dogwood is among the first to be eaten by both birds and squirrels. Remember to plant your dogwood in good, well-drained soil in some shade. They become stressed when planted in full sun.

Many years ago, we planted a native highbush blueberry just outside our home office window. Every summer, we enjoy watching cardinals and mockingbirds selecting ripe berries; I am happy to share the delicious bounty with them.

There are many other great berry producing native plants that birds love – magnolia, wax myrtle, cherry laurel, and viburnum to name just a few. Cabbage palms, bluestem palmettos and saw palmettos also produce fruit for birds and other wildlife. In early October, my husband Jody and I walked along a short trail at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge that was naturally lined with cabbage palms loaded with ripe fruit. We saw at least 8 catbirds, lots of boat-tailed grackles, a red-bellied woodpecker and a thrush feasting on the berries and a yellowthroat and other birds in and amongst the thicket of cedar, yaupon and palm.

A word of caution: choose your non-native fruiting plants carefully. Many, like the Chinese tallow tree, may be beautiful and attract a multitude of birds. Unfortunately, the birds spread the seeds and the trees take hold outside of your yard in natural areas of forest and wetland crowding out Florida's native species and upsetting the balance of nature.