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American Beautyberry: More than Just Beauty

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

The beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, is a shrub that is native to the southeastern United States. For most of the year, its large, light green leaves and open form can brighten up a cottage or woodland garden. In south Florida, it becomes a showstopper when the woody branches become enveloped by bright purple berries at the end of summer. At first glance (and taste), you'd merely think the berries were bird food, but technically, they're edible. When eaten raw, they have a mealy texture and are flavorless; the medicinal, camphor-like scent from the leaves can be overwhelming. However, the chemical compounds that give the plant its peculiar odor are useful for making unique food items (and mosquito repellent as effective as DEET!).

The only way to make the berries palatable for human consumption (in my opinion) is to add copious amounts of sugar to them. When the berries are cooked down and sugar is added, any bitterness or astringency is reduced, and the unique floral notes are enhanced. People who enjoy canning make delicious jams or jellies with the berries. There are a few websites with recipes you can find online for those. I only have one beautyberry shrub in my yard; tucked into a shady corner beneath a Jamaica caper tree. So, I harvested a large handful of berries, making sure I left some for the mockingbirds, of course. My small harvest and lack of canning supplies was a challenge, so I decided to make a simple syrup instead. I was inspired by typical Middle Eastern flavor combinations, and came up with a beautyberry rose syrup:

Beautyberry Simple Syrup

1 cup beautyberries

2 cups water

1 cup sugar

1 tsp rose water (optional)

Combine the beautyberries and 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Macerate and stir the berries to extract as much juice as you can. Once the water has boiled down, the berries have lost their color, and the skins have risen to the top, strain the mixture through a sieve and discard the pulp. You should have about a cup of liquid.

Next, continue as you would with any simple syrup recipe: in a saucepan, dissolve the cup of sugar in the cup of beautyberry juice and bring to a boil, about 3 to 5 minutes until thickened. Remove from the heat and cool. Stir in the rose water and store in the refrigerator for up to one month. Use it in cocktails like my recipe below:

Beautyberry Gin & Tonic

2 oz. Dillon's Rose Gin Liqueur

1 oz. St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

1 oz. tonic water

1 tsp. beautyberry simple syrup

Garnish with a lemon twist or wedge

I'm a firm believer that cooking should be experimental; I always try to use what I have on hand. With that being said, my recipes are open to interpretation and substitution! I only hope that it inspires you to be creative with Florida's edible plants.



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