American beautyberry has an open, loose form. (Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter)
Bald cypresses drop their leaves in fall, creating a natural mulch. (Photo by Ashley Edwards/LSU AgCenter)
Fall 2020 Super Plants are Louisiana natives
Heather Kirk-Ballard /LSU AgCenter horticulturist
2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the Louisiana Super Plants program. This year we celebrate by adding two true native woody plants: American beautyberry and our state tree, bald cypress.
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a deciduous, native shrub of North America and can be found growing naturally in the Southeast along the edges of forests, in low rich bottomlands, at the edges of swamps, in piney woods and in coastal woodlands. Growing 4 to 8 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide, it is an open, airy and loose spreading shrub bearing elliptic-shaped, light green to yellow leaves with toothed margins.
In Greek, the genus name Callicarpa means callos, “beauty,” and carpos, “fruit.” And of course, the species americana indicates its origins in America. This shrub is called beautyberry just for that: its beautiful, purple berrylike (drupe) fruit are spectacular. They are most abundant when the shrub is located in full sun; fruit will be sparse in shade. It makes for a great understory shrub with a moderate-fast growth rate, and it requires very little maintenance. It grows well in most soils, even poor clay soils, and is considered to be both drought tolerant and relatively pest free.
American beautyberry is considered a pioneer species in plant succession because it is often one of the first plants to appear on cleared lands. This plant offers many ecosystem services. The seeds and berries are an important food source for many songbird species of America, including American robin, brown thrasher, northern bobwhite, purple finch and eastern towhee, in addition to being a nectar source for pollinators such a bees and butterflies.
The berries were once used by Native Americans and early settlers in traditional folk medicine. The berries also can be used to make jellies and jams.
American beautyberry is most notable for its seasonal color change and early autumn color here in Louisiana as an ornamental landscape plant. It is available at most local nurseries and can be found growing wild throughout the state.
Our second native Louisiana Super Plant selection is the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), a deciduous conifer native to the southeastern United States. Every Louisianan knows it’s our state tree. Bald cypress trees are hardy and strong, being adapted to a wide range of soil types, including, dry, wet and swampy areas. They thrive in hot, humid environments, with faster growth during hot growing seasons.
Bald cypresses are long-lived and although they have a relatively fast growth as a young tree, growing slows as the tree ages. At maturity, a bald cypress will grow up to 50 to 70 feet tall and as much as 25 feet wide. The National Champion Bald Cypress can be found in Louisiana at the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville. It is estimated to be 1,500 years old and is 96 feet tall and 56 feet in circumference.
Bald cypress is known for its pyramidal shape; ornamental, exfoliating bark; and lacy needles when young. These needles turn a striking red-russet color in fall before dropping and becoming a natural blanket of mulch. The bark is brown to gray in color, and it forms long, scaly ridges in the trunk that peel off in strips as the tree ages, lending to the name “bald” cypress.
In addition to its use as an ornamental landscape tree, the bald cypress has been used as a valuable lumber for building homes, boats, doors, river pilings, cabinetry and so forth. Cajun pirogues, or the flat-bottomed boats used in the marsh and swampy areas across the state, were typically dug out of bald cypress trunks.
Bald cypress can form “cypress knees,” which provide additional aesthetics for some and headaches for others. It is still not fully understood why cypresses grow knees, but the thought is to help oxygenate the roots and provide support to the tree. Knees can form in both wet and dry environments.
Homeowners should always take into account the possibility of knees and consider concrete driveways and sidewalks when deciding if and where to plant a bald cypress. Please be sure to plant as far away as possible from homes (including your neighbors’), septic systems and swimming pools.
Bald cypress trees are a great choice for planting around lakes and ponds for stabilizing the soil near the water’s edge in addition to the aesthetic beauty they add. Bald cypress is able to withstand strong winds even in marshy soils due to its strong, durable wood.
Many wildlife, including birds and fish, rely on these trees for nesting, food and shelter throughout the year in marsh and swampy areas. Bald eagle nests can be spotted in cypress tree tops throughout Louisiana. It is our family tradition to be the first to spot the bald eagles and their nests from the Bonnet Carré Spillway bridge on our way into New Orleans.
Both of these Louisiana native plants have proven their superiority over the centuries here in Louisiana. They are two tried-and-true natives that are well adapted to our climate and topography, making them easy-care additions for your landscape.