California Coffeeberry

Coffeeberry (Frangula californica): How To Grow and Care

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Are you looking for a really easy to grow, native shrub for zones 7 to 10? Look no further than the Coffeeberry, Frangula californica. This low maintenance plant is both versatile and easy on the eye. The birds and butterflies will thank you too!

What Is A Coffeeberry?

The Coffeeberry, also known as California buckthorn or pigeon-berry, was previously known as Rhamnus californica but has since been assigned to Frangula californica.

This is a dense but tidy evergreen shrub or small tree which usually grows to about 6ft (1.8 m) in height but may reach 12ft (3.7 m), depending on subspecies, cultivar, and growing conditions.

The coffeeberry is native to western North America from Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico to Mexico, in woodlands and forests at altitudes of up to around 9000ft (2740 m) above sea level. 

This fire-resistant species is long-lived and believed to reach ripe old ages of up to 200 years. 

The glossy, alternately arranged leaves are usually 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7.5 cm) long and grow on reddish, brown, or gray stems. Six subspecies of this plant are recognized. 

California Coffeeberry
Rhamnus californica photo by Bri Weldon | Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Coffeeberry Flowers

Coffeeberry flowers are not particularly impressive, being just one-eighth of an inch (3 mm) in size and greenish-white in color. The flowers occur in clusters known as umbels, each with 5 to 60 blossoms. Coffeeberry flowers have 5 petals, 5 sepals, and no distinctive fragrance. 

Expect to see flowers in late spring to summer, an event eagerly anticipated by native bees and butterflies. Some subspecies, such as F. californica ssp. tomentella will flower as early as January. (1)

The small flowers give way to attractive juicy fruits of around ½ an inch (13 mm) in diameter. These fruits are green, ripening to red and then black, and contain two seeds each that resemble coffee beans.

coffeeberry shrub

Cultivars of Rhamnus californica

Eve Case

‘Eve case’ is a popular cultivar that reaches a height and width of around 8ft (2.4 m) or less. 

Mound San Bruno

‘Mound San Bruno’ is a good choice for screening applications, reaching just 6ft (1.8 m) in height but twice as wide.

Leatherleaf

‘Leatherleaf’ reaches around 8ft (2.4 m) in height and width and has attractive dark foliage.

Little Sur

‘Little Sur’ is a dwarf cultivar, attaining just 3 to 4ft (0.9 to 1.2 m) in height and width, making it a good choice for container planting.

Seaview

‘Seaview’ is ideal as low maintenance, taller ground cover plant, reaching a height of about 2 to 3ft (60 to 90 cm) and at least as wide.


How To Grow A Coffeeberry

Coffeeberry plants are easily grown from seed, planted at a depth of ½ an inch (13 mm) or less. 

Seeds, which are mature in the fall, can be sown fresh and will take about 6 weeks to germinate. If you wish to plant in the spring, stratification of the seeds will be necessary.

Collect berries before they fully ripen as juicy ripe fruits are quickly snapped up by birds, and you might miss your chance. Plants will mature and begin to flower and produce seeds at the age of two to five years.  

Coffeeberry can be grown from cuttings, but this is not the preferred method of propagation for the species as success rates may be low.

These plants are not too particular about the soils they are grown in and can be grown in a variety of substrates, although well-drained soils with pHs of between 5 and 8 are preferred.

These plants are well adapted to drier environments and are drought tolerant. As such, they have minimal water requirements and should be watered only lightly in the summer months. Newly planted specimens should be watered weekly until established.

Grow these plants in full sun to partial shade, depending on the cultivar, and in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 10. Coffeeberry plants grown in full sun will have a denser, more compact growth form than those in partial shade.

Care and Maintenance

There isn’t too much to say about the care and maintenance of the coffeeberry plant due to its natural hardiness and pest and disease resistance. These plants grow at a moderate rate and can be pruned to maintain your desired shape and size. 

Mulching around the base of the stem will improve moisture retention in the soil which is important for young and newly planted coffeeberries. Take care not to overwater your coffeeberry, however, and keep mulch clear of contact with the base of the stem.

Uses

Horticultural Uses

Coffeeberry is a great choice for natural, wildlife-attracting, and water-conserving gardens. It can be grown as an informal hedge, screen, understory, or background plant and will do well in containers. This is also an ideal plant for stabilizing slopes in erosion-prone sites.

Human Uses

Traditionally, coffeeberry was used in the treatment of a number of ailments including influenza, dermatitis, constipation, kidney problems, and toothache. 

Wildlife Uses

Birds, like the band-tailed pigeon, love the fruits and disperse seeds widely. Flowers attract hummingbirds and native bees. This plant is also the larval host of the spectacular pale tiger swallowtail butterfly.

Deer, black bears, and coyotes feed on the fruits of this plant in the wild. The leaves of this plant are generally ignored by deer except for in times of drought. 


FAQs

Conclusion

While this may not be the most colorful, fragrant, or refined garden species, the pleasing look and shape of this plant, in combination with its hardiness and low maintenance requirements make Coffeeberry a definite winner for gardens in USDA zones 7 to 10. 

The variety of wildlife this plant supports and its low water requirements are also a huge plus for the environmentally conscious gardener.

Check our blog for more different types of shrubbery you can grow.

References

Reference List:

(1) Tutka, M. Plant Guide For California Coffeeberry (Frangula californica). Retrieved at https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_frca12.pdf

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