It looks like something straight out of Photoshop but this fruit is for real. Aside from just looking pretty, it’s also being actively researched for potential uses in healthcare and as a non-toxic insect and pest repellent.

What’s a beauty berry bush?

Some people write the name as two words like that, but technically the space between doesn’t belong.

There are 165 species throughout the world and the most common are the American beautyberry, Europe’s Bodinier’s, and the Japanese variety. These bushes typically grow 1-4 meters tall and produce clusters of small violet fruits, called beautyberries. They’re used for decorative purposes and in Traditional Chinese Medicine, for the treatment of inflammation and bleeding disorders.

The scientific name for beautyberry is Callicarpa, which is the name of the genus that encompasses all 165 varieties. An individual species is identified by the second word (specific epithet) that comes after Callicarpa.

For example, Callicarpa americana is the American beautyberry, which can be found in the southeast United States where it natively grows. The Early Amethyst (Callicarpa dichotoma) is a popular Asian variety that people grow here for ornamental purposes.

Some call them French mulberries, even though they are unrelated to mulberries.

American beautyberry

Callicarpa americana is native to the southeast US

The meaning of beautyberry stems from their beautiful purple appearance. Might these fruits make you feel and look good too?

It’s too early to say.

Despite what some traditional medicinal practices claim, there are no proven health benefits. At least not yet. There isn’t a great deal of research on this bush or its fruit. In the PubMed database, only around 100 medical related papers can be found. None are human clinical trials, however there is intriguing research involving cultured human cells in the lab. Healthcare aside, the best evidence is that these berries are good for repelling insects like mosquitoes, ants, and ticks. (1)

Can you eat them?

Beautyberries are edible, as the fruits and the leaves are not poisonous. Despite being non-toxic, animals like birds will only eat the berries when no other food sources are available, because they taste bitter. For that same reason, humans don’t eat them fresh or raw, though some people make beautyberry jelly, tea, and wine using them.

What the raw beautyberries taste like is a mild zesty and sweet flavor, traits which are overpowered by the bitterness. At only 2–5 mm in diameter, not much is inside. It’s not juicy like a raspberry or strawberry. It may not be pleasant on the tongue, but your nose will enjoy the perfume-like scent.

closeup photo of callicarpa fruitThe medicinal taste goes away when you cook or boil them. Recipes for jams and jellies include sugar, which balances out the tartness and the result is a sweet and tangy taste. If you like the tartness of golden berries, you will like products made from them.

Since it’s not normally eaten by humans, the side effects of beautyberry are unknown. Slight nausea after eating the jam has been brought up in a review, though it’s probably the unusual flavor that had something to do with that.

While an allergic reaction to beautyberry is theoretically possible, it has not yet been documented in published research. Pregnancy and breastfeeding safety are unknown too, as not even pregnant animals have been researched.

There is no evidence to suggest that beautyberries or the bush they grow on are poisonous to dogs and cats. Adverse reactions have not been reported. Yet there’s no formal research on this topic, either.

Can dogs eat grapes? It wasn’t confirmed until the 1990’s that grapes are extremely toxic to dogs. If it took that long to figure out for a common fruit, one can only imagine how far off we are from knowing the toxicity or safety of rarely consumed superfoods and niche plants.

Beautyberry essential oil

The essential oils are the most common use for the plant, though not for aromatherapy. These oils, which contain at least 67 different compounds, have been found to be useful for repelling insects like ants and mosquitoes. The terpenoids, which make up to 60% of the oil, have demonstrated antibacterial and antifungal benefits. Research on cancer and memory impairment is also taking place. (2)

The main constituents in the steam-distilled essential oil of American beautyberry plants are:

  • Humulene epoxide II – 13.9%
  • Alpha-humulene – 10.0%
  • 7-epi-alpha-eudesmol – 9.4%
  • Beta-pinene – 8.8%
  • 1-octen-3-ol – 8.5%

Even though these are the main compounds by concentration, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are the most important active ingredients. (3)

For example, carnosol is one of its essential compounds found in much lower amounts. It has been found to be a “potent lung protective agent” in research using mice where lung damage was inflicted. It’s also a noteworthy antioxidant. Rosemary and mountain desert sage are two other plants that contain carnosol. (4) (5)

10 beautyberry benefits and uses

1. Antibacterial

The species Callicarpa tomentosa (syn. Callicarpa farinosa) grows in western India and Sri Lanka. Local Ayurvedic practices in the area use it in herbal remedies, which might be why scientists decided to test it for antibacterial activity.

Triterpenoids, which were isolated from the bark, exhibited antimicrobial activity against lab tested strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which causes antibiotic-resistant staph infections. It worked so well in their experiments, they said (6):

“…could be further explored in the development of therapeutic compounds for the treatment of S. aureus [staph] infections and help mitigate resistance development due to target alterations.”

South Korean researchers tested the essential oils of Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica) on two common foodborne pathogens, Bacillus cereus and Salmonella typhimurium. They reported (7):

“All foodborne microorganisms tested were strongly inhibited by the addition of >8% of the extracts to the broth medium.”

Even though they’re incorrectly called blue-green algae, cyanobacteria are a type of bacteria that live in water and get their energy through photosynthesis, just like plants do. Extracts of the American berry (Callicarpa americana) were found to be “selectively toxic” towards cyanobacteria. (8)

2. Antiviral

Researchers isolated a flavone from the Japanese beautyberry bush (Callicarpa japonica) and tested it against the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) in the lab.

The flavone was 5,6,7-Trimethoxyflavone, or TMF for short.

It seemed to have “relatively high inhibitory effects” against the virus, by interfering with viral bonding to the host cells.

They also tried combining it with acylovir, which is the active ingredient in the herpes medicines Zovirax and Sitavig. Together they had a synergistic effect.

They graph they provided is a bit confusing at first glance…

chart showing antiviral effects of a beautyberry extract

The dashed line shows the theoretical amounts needed for each compound to inhibit the virus by 50%, when each is used separately.

The solid line shows how they work together better, in various ratios.

As an example, the purple “X” we drew is for 0.2 of TMF and 0.1 of acylovir. That combo inhibited replication by 50%.

You can see how either a lot of acylovir or a lot of TMF did work, however less of each was needed when they were combined.

It also inhibited replication of the poliovirus, though keep in mind all of this took place in the lab. The antiviral effects of beautyberry extracts have never been tested in animals or humans. (9)

3. Antifungal

The species Callicarpa kwangtungensis is native to China but commonly grown in Europe as a decorative plant. The essential oil made from demonstrated anti-fungal activity in the lab against Candida albicans. (10)

Candida is responsible for many yeast infections in humans, so this warrants further research.

In Mexico, leaf extracts of the Callicarpa acuminata species were found to offer “moderate inhibition” of two types of fungi that harm plants. (11)

4. Direct and indirect antioxidant activity

Back to that study on lung damage in mice, Chinese scientists screened 200 plant extracts specifically for their ability to stimulate the NRF2 pathway. When activated, it helps combat oxidative damage caused by injuries and inflammation. (12)

Their conclusion was that the beautyberry extract (from Callicarpa longissima) was the best way to do that in these mice with damaged lungs. They fed it to the mice everyday for 1 week, before dissecting them to analyze.

When they looked at the lungs under the microscope, they concluded that this plant extract “was rich in NRF2 activators” and that it’s likely due to the carnosol in it. Their conclusion stated (13):

“Lungs from mice treated with C. longissima extract were less damaged than those from control mice and accompanied by HO-1 induction. These results suggest that carnosol is a candidate compound to increase the success rate of lung transplantation.”

This graphic they provided shows how they believe it might help with organ transplants of the lung:

diagram of how carnosol might help lung transplant patients

So that’s indirect antioxidant activity, since it’s by way of boosting NRF2 in the body.

There’s also direct antioxidant activity that’s been observed…

In a study with diabetic rats, the phenolic and flavonoid contents taken from the bark of beautyberry plants appeared to help. Their conclusion stated it “may have possible role as herbal antioxidants in the prevention and/or treatment of oxidative stress-induced diabetes mellitus.” (14)

In lab research, extracts were used from the Japanese (C. japonica) and Bodinier’s beautyberry (C. bodinieri) among several other species of beautyberries. Using cultured tissue, they observed the leaf and fruit extract against the oxidation of fat in blood cells, brain tissue, and other tissue samples. Strong antioxidant effects were observed. (15)

The ORAC value for any part of the beautyberry has not been tested, which makes it impossible to compare on an apples to apples against the other 500+ entries in our ORAC values database.

5. Repels ticks comparably to DEET

At least that’s based on the results of a USDA study, conducted by the agency’s Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory.

They isolated specific compounds from American beautyberries and using treated cloth treated, tested its repellent activity against deer/blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) and lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum).

“Dose response tests with I. scapularis nymphs [deer ticks] showed no difference in repellency among callicarpenal, intermedeol [the two beautyberry compounds] and DEET”

Deer or blacklegged ticks transmit the bacterial infection that causes Lyme disease.

They said those two compounds have “potential for commercial development.” (16)

6. Natural mosquito repellent

Mosquitoes also seem to hate one of those compounds; the callicarpenal. It has shown “shown significant repellent activities” against them.

This table shows how callicarpenal and its analogues (13, 14, and 15) compared to DEET for repelling mosquitoes. (17)

Treatment tested against 100 female Aedes mosquitoes Dosage Used (nmoles/cm2) Average Proportion Not Biten
DEET 25 0.91
callicarpenal 25 0.72
13 25 0.61
14 25 0.61
15 25 0.64
ethanol alcohol n/a 0.22

It had about 80% the efficacy of DEET, when equal amounts of both were tested.

That was based on tests using Aedes mosquitoes, which are known carriers of the Zika virus. (18)

It’s not just the American plant that has these compounds, as the same terpenoids are in the leaves of the Japanese beautyberry bush and most likely, many of the other 165 species.

7. Natural ant repellent

The same compounds seem to work against fire ants and other arthropod insects. In fact it works so well, one group filed a patent on using it for that very purpose. They eventually abandoned it, as pursuing a patent of a naturally occurring compound is hard to do (however the extraction process of such might be patentable). (19) (20)

8. Skin lightening

This is a pro or con, depending on how you look at it.

If you have a fresh scar, then inhibiting melanin production on it is probably a good thing, since you don’t want that scar to be darker than the rest of your skin.

Over a dozen Japanese scientists published findings in which they used mouse cells and observed that the carnosol taken from the plant suppressed the MITF gene, which in turn reduced melanin production of the skin. It led them to conclude (21):

“These results suggest that C. longissima [white fruited Asian beautyberry] is a novel, useful, and attractive source of skin-whitening agents.”

9. Cancer research

During the past ten or so years, several research papers have been published on testing isolates of this plant against cancer cells in the lab.

The first was in 2007 and conducted by the University of Illinois. They gathered American beautyberries from southern Florida. The fruits, leaves, and twigs were all analyzed in the lab and various compounds (diterpenes) were isolated. Most of them selected showed cytotoxic effects against a panel of cultured human cancer cell lines. (22)

Five years later, Taiwanese researchers claimed that new compounds they isolated from another species were cytotoxic against cultured human prostate cancer cells. (23)

That same year, Malaysian researchers claimed similar results when they tested against the human breast cancer cell line MCF-7, which is arguably the most researched cell line for breast. (24)

The Chinese have claimed anti-cancer effects in a cultured leukemia cell line,, using compounds from the Callicarpa nudiflora bush. (25)

So far it appears only certain compounds have this effect in the lab. The glycosides, which are the main ingredients in the plant’s essential oil, are said to be inactive against tested cancer cell lines. (26)

10. Memory improvement

The Callicarpa dichotoma species is native to China, the Korean peninsula, and Japan. South Korean researchers have found that the compound acteoside, which was isolated from its leaves and twigs, had “anti-amnesic activity” in mice which were doped up with scopolamine (Hyoscine). That’s a medication used to treat motion sickness and nausea.

With once daily dosages of acteoside, ranging from 0.1 mg to 2.5 mg per kg of body weight, the mice performed better in memory tests, such as the widely used Morris water maze.

charts showing the health benefits of beautberry on brains of mice

The last sentence of their abstract was this (27):

“We suggest, therefore, that acteoside has anti-amnesic activity that may ultimately hold significant therapeutic value in alleviating certain memory impairment observed in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Verdict?

Per the USDA website, here is where the beautyberry bush can be found native in the United States. (28)

map of where beautyberry bush grows native

They may not be common in this green-shaded area, but they can be found growing in the wild there.

Despite being there throughout America’s history, it wasn’t until the advent of the internet when people realized “actually, they aren’t poisonous and I can eat them!”

Prior to that, most grew up with the notion that these pretty purple berries were poisonous, because after all, their mommy and daddy told them so!

You still can’t buy foods made with them, like jams and wine, let alone the raw fruit or the essential oil made from the plant. Where to buy them is literally non-existent. Not even the online retailers and marketplaces sell beautyberries and you won’t find them for sale at local farmers’ markets. Your only options are to plant a bush or buy American beautyberry seeds if you want to eat this fruit.

To reiterate, all of the research on health benefits is far too preliminary right now. Nothing is even close to being proven at this point. Though if more research is done – ideally human clinical studies – then that too might change and as a result, perhaps it could create a new buzz for this old fruit.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.