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American Beautyberries

American Beautyberry

My daddy always called ’em French mulberry,” my husband, a seventh-generation Texan, tells me as he pulls a branch toward him to examine the telltale nibble marks of white-tailed deer. We could barely walk a few yards in the woods of his family’s deer lease without spotting a beautyberry bush—a good thing, as both the leaves and the berries are a wildlife staple. The protein content of the leaves can reach more than 23 percent in spring, then drops as the year progresses and the plant’s energy goes into making the fruit. Deer browse the leaves in summer and fall. After the leaves have dropped, or been consumed, the deer then turn to the fruit for sustenance—as do armadillo, ’coon, fox, ’possum, squirrel, and songbird.

The berry clusters are a nearly neon fuschia-toned purple, appearing like little bomb-bursts along the long, arcing branches, and seem to glow in the drabness of the autumn woods. Plentiful throughout the Southeast, beautyberry ranges from Maryland south to Florida, and west through Missouri and down through Texas. From its abundance where we live, it must love the Texas Pineywoods most of all.

Before the advent of DEET (another one of extremely toxic substances starting with “D” and ending with “T” that came into nearly rabid popularity in the ’40s), Southern farmers would rub crushed beautyberry leaves under the harnesses and collar of their mule or horse teams to repel insects. Testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture–Agriculture Research Service has identified three naturally occurring chemicals in beautyberry leaves—callicarpenal, intermedeol, and spathulenol—that repel insects as well as DEET, but without the adverse side effects.

The next time you’re in the woods and in need of bug spray, simply grab a handful of beautyberry leaves and rub all over your clothing and/or cap (best not to rub any plant material on your skin until you know how your body will react to it).

Beautyberry Jelly

This is an exquisite jelly, both for its sparkling ruby color and indescribable flavor; well worth the trouble of picking and cleaning the clusters of tiny berries. Beautyberries don’t “taste like” anything else; they taste uniquely like beautyberries. I use all-natural Pomona Pectin (www.pomonapectin.com) for my jam- and jelly-making, an all-natural, citrus-based pectin with no additives or preservatives.

Makes 6 (½-pint) jars

4 cups beautyberries, washed and stemmed

1 lemon, juiced and strained

4 teaspoons Pomona calcium water, mixed according to package directions

2 cups organic cane sugar (buzzed in a food processor until fine)

4 teaspoons Pomona pectin (do not substitute)

In a 5-quart stockpot over medium heat, simmer the berries in 4 cups water for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and use a potato masher or immersion blender to crush the berries, then return to medium-low heat and simmer for another 20 minutes. Line a strainer with a layer of cheesecloth, place over a medium pot, and strain the berries through, pressing gently with a wooden spoon to release the juice.

Prepare a water-bath canner and bring it to a simmer (180° F) over medium heat. Heat 6 (1/2-pint) jelly jars in the canner, either upside down or on their sides. In a saucepan, add enough water to cover the lids and bands, bring to a simmer (180° F) over medium heat; do not boil. Keep lids hot until you’re ready to apply them.

Into a large pot over medium-high heat, pour 4 cups of the strained juice mixture. Add the lemon juice and the calcium water and bring to a boil. While this is coming to a boil, mix the pectin thoroughly with the sugar. As the juice begins boiling, slowly sprinkle in the pectin-sugar mixture, stirring constantly. Return the mixture to a boil and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, then remove the jelly from the heat.

When the water in the canner begins to simmer, use tongs to remove the jars. Ladle the hot jelly into the hot jars, leaving a 1/4-inch headspace. Using a bubble remover or plastic utensil, remove any air bubbles, then wipe the jar rims clean and apply the lids and bands. Return the jars to the canner, with enough water to cover the tops of the jars by 1 inch. Bring to a boil and process for 10 minutes. Uncover the canner and turn off the heat. After 5 minutes, remove the jars and let them cool. Allow the jelly to sit untouched for 24 hours, check the seals, remove the bands, and store in a cool dry place for up to a year. Once opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

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