The plant's latin name is Ardisia escallonioides, which I can barely spell, let alone pronounce, and it has become a personal favorite. In addition to all the claims made for it above, marlberry is an uncomplaining soldier in the garden, requiring very little care.
Why do I like it? Let me count the ways! Glossy dark green leaves, white flowers with a subtle, sweet fragrance, and berries! The berries are lovely in all their stages. Starting out as white to pale green and deepening to lusterous dark purple clumps that hang in thick graceful arches. How's that!? As an added benefit, marlberry is a super wildlife supporter. It not only provides food and nectar for a wide variety of animals, birds and butterflies, but it is dense enough to provide good cover, too.
|The birds have already been helping themselves to this one.|
Marlberry is listed by the IRC (Institute for Regional Conservation) as an upright shrub or small tree. Let me say a quick word about the IRC here. The Institute's mission is to provide information to enable South Floridians to identify plants naturally adapted to the growing zones they they wish to plant. This furthers their intent to aid in the conservation and restoration of natives in our area. You can type in your zip code for a list of plants that historically do well in that location. This explains why, in the URL bar, the name that appears is "Natives for Your Neighborhood." It is a very user-friendly site, with plenty of good information and links to more resources. Don't worry, though, marlberry is found growing well northward throughout Central Florida.
The IRC says that marlberry can grow in nutrient poor soils, but needs some organic content, is highly wind-resistant and will even tolerate some salt wind, is drought resistant once established, and its leaves are persistent. Meaning they fall off one by one when they are old enough, not all at once. They prefer a moist, but well-drained spot.
It can reach heights of 20 feet in a natural setting, but more typically in the suburban setting it ranges from 8 to 15 feet, and can be pruned to keep it in conformity. It flowers and fruits intermittently throughout the year. Here again the variability is part of its charm; in my garden, bushes right next to one another are on different cycles, and it is rare that the whole yard is without at least bush with natural decorations on it.
Marlberry tolerates a lot of shade, but will grow faster and produce more flowers with more light. It is a fairly slow grower.
You should beware of the imposter, commonly called Shoebutton ardisia, which is a category one exotic from Southeast Asia. This look-alike forms dense single-species stands that crowd out natives. Although birds can eat its berries, it does not provide the insect habitat that enable bird parents to feed the next generation. The latin name for the invasive is Ardisia elliptica. The Miami-Dade, Broward, and Everglades Park systems are all engaged removing this one.
Marlberry is the name I hear most frequently used in reference to this plant, with 'ardisia' running a close second. Rufino Osorio comments in A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants that marlberry is probably a corruption of Marble-berry, another name sometimes used for it. Rufino points out that marlberry is really a misnomer because the plant is never found in wet, marly conditions.
I 'd like to borrow from Rufino's eloquent tribute as a closer -
"it is densely clothed in dark green leaves and bears at various intervals throughout the year branched clusters of small, fragrant white flowers that fairly seem to glow against the dark foliage. "
Wish I'd thought of that.
Ardisia escallonioides is readily available for sale. So go on out and get some!