The multicolored berries of Frangula californica
Here we are in mid-February and the warm weather is coming back. Welcome to Southern California, and welcome back to our final installation in our series on red berries (notice I did not say red ‘winter’ berries this time – more on that below). This week we will take a look at a beloved, if perhaps a little underrepresented in the landscape, California native – Frangula californica – also known as the coffeeberry!
Prized by horticulturalists, civilians, and birds alike for its multi-colored berries, coffeeberry is that old friend you can go anywhere and talk about anything with!
Frangula californica (Coffeeberry) basics:
- Common names: Coffeeberry, California buckthorn, California coffeeberry
- Perennial woody shrub (particularly large specimens could be considered small trees)
- 6 – 15 ft tall, 5 – 15 ft wide, however there are subspecies and cultivars that are smaller
- Growth habit (plant form): Mounding, rounded, spreading
- Moderate growth rate
- No noticeable fragrance
- Flowers: The flowers are fairly inconspicuous (not very noticeable) – they are small with a green/cream/white color and grow in clusters
- Blooming season: Spring and Summer – often May through August
- Fruit: Berry clusters (each berry is less than one centimeter in diameter) with a color range from green, red, purple, to black. Each berry contains two seeds that resemble coffee beans, hence the name coffeeberry. Birds love the fruit.
A dense, upright specimen of Frangula californica
Native Area and Horticultural History
Coffeeberry’s native range covers most of California, southwest Oregon, much of Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and Baja California.
The native range (by county) of Frangula californica. This map was created by the USDA, which is funded by the American taxpayer (so it should be in the public domain).
Coffeeberry is an important member of the California chaparral (including brush canyonsides) and woodland plant communities. It can be found in places as diverse as Joshua tree woodlands to Redwood forests. Range indeed.
It is beginning to find more recognition in the cultivated landscape as water wise gardens are becoming more popular in the Southern California region.
Frangula californica has several named cultivars (a cultivar is a cultivated plant, genetically modified through plant selection to emphasis specific traits – think dog breeds)
Frangula californica ‘Eve Case’
‘Eve Case’ – smaller and more compact (although the picture above, admittedly, looks fairly large)
‘Seaview’ – ground cover
‘Mount St. Bruno’ (sometimes listed as ‘Mound St. Bruno’)– particularly dense and tolerant of landscape conditions
‘Leatherleaf’ – Black-green foliage
Coffeberry is known as an adaptable plant. As our climate faces uncertain changes, adaptability, for humans and plants alike, is going to become more and more important. Stay limber out there.
The rounded form of coffeeberry
Frangula californica is often densely foliated with dark red branches. The leaves (alternate, oblong-ovate shaped, and often 1 -4 inches long) have a visually satisfying dark green color with a reddish tint. Good eye feel. They often curl, slightly, at the margins and have pronounced venation, especially on their undersides, which tends to be a paler shade of green. With varying degrees of pronouncement, the leaf margins have subtle serration.
Notice the serrated edges (margins) of the leaves. This is often, but not always, present on coffeeberry leaves.
The inconspicuous flowers of the coffeeberry
The overall branching habit tends to be rounded and spreading. Older, larger specimens often have a spotted pale grey and somewhat smooth bark (which I’ve read can be used as a laxative – maybe don’t try this at home, though).
Red Berries for a Beautiful Landscape
Although I, personally, love the leafing structure of this plant, coffeberry is particularly prized as a landscape plant for its berries. Understandably. They are, again in my opinion, the most visually striking of the berries in this series.
The berries change colors, here we see them in reddish hues
Okay, so I took the ‘winter’ out of the red berry title of this article because the fruit, while sometimes persistent later into the year, shows up in spring and summer. Regardless, it has red berries, so it is a welcomed part of this series.
Here we see purple/black berries present
Okay, so the berries are often not red either. The berries change color over the course of the season. Coffeeberry is a chameleon of color change. Okay, so it’s not really a chameleon either, exactly. The change is gradual. Green to red to purple to black. Often there will be different colored berries sitting right next to each other. This is the magic. The nicely shaped, richly green leaves frame a cornucopia of varying colored berries making for a beautiful addition to your landscape.
And here we see a full range of berry colors. Magnificent.
Frangula californica, where have you been our whole lives? Right here… in California. It’s all over the place.
The birds knew. Coffeeberry fruit is beloved by many traveling and local birds alike. The fruit is also edible for larger animals, such as deer (who tend to leave the leaves alone, thankfully, for us in the upper foothills) and bears (don’t worry, you’re not going to find a bear in your yard unless they are already going the be there – coffeeberry is a cool plant, but not quite cool enough to attract bears from far and wide).
They do look a little tasty, no? Well, the birds think so.
Humans can eat the fruit too. There is debate on whether they are poisonous for us, but it is generally accepted that one would have to consume a large amount to become sick. I’ve read they have a slightly fig-like taste. The next one I see, I’m eating, but I cannot, in good consciousness recommend that for you, dear reader.
Coffeeberry is an excellent landscape plant. They are low maintenance and low water use, once established.
Depending on the species or cultivar, they can be used to help stabilize slopes, form hedges for landscape borders and/or privacy (as informal hedges), groundcover (specific cultivars such as ‘Seaview’), and pollinator/bird gardens. They can used as specimen plants as well.
Frangula californica ‘Eve Case’ growing beautifully in a low water landscape
Their rounded, often upright structure adds visual weight to planters, drawing the eye in one direction or another.
Coffeeberry is one of those plants where the more one looks, the more one likes. The combination of berries, overall form, and leaf structure are so visually gratifying (again, good eye feel) without trying too hard. Truly masterful design, nature.
This beautiful leaf form will honor most any landscape
- Full sun to part shade
- Once established, they tend to need little supplemental water. Maximum 2x per month during summer heat.
- They usually tolerate a variety of soil types, but prefer well draining soil. Some subspecies/cultivars have more specific needs (ask your local knowledgeable nursery). PH 5.0 – 8.0 (a relatively wide range)
- Excellent in the landscape for bank stabilization, informal hedges, groundcover, understory plants, background plants, and specimen plants (a bit of everything, thank you)
- The flowers are inconspicuous, but the fruit is showy and attracts beneficial wildlife such as butterflies, bees, and birds
- Cold hardy to 10 degrees F (potential damage at lower temperatures) – some sources say it is cold hardy to 5 degrees F – USDA Hardiness zones 7 to 10 (much of Los Angeles is 10)
- Fertilizer is not necessary
- For propagation: seeds or cuttings
Coffeeberry often handles pruning well and can be somewhat shaped to emphasis its small tree-like structure or pruned as an informal hedge.
Frangula californica making a rather triumphant informal hedge
What’s in a Name?
I neglected to mention this before, for the sake of some kind of clarity in an often unclear world, but the botanical name, Frangula californica, is a more recent development. For many years, the coffeeberry was, and in many circles still is, known as Rhamnus californica.
Botanical names change when botanists learn more and reclassify plants. This is not uncommon, but the change is usually accepted slowly over the years. Rhamnus californica is the original name and Frangula californica is the more recently changed name. Many horticulturalists and nurseries still use Rhamnus californica. I chose to go with the new name. Some people would have made a different choice.
And now I will double down and explain the etymology of Frangula californica.
‘Frangula’ comes from the Latin word, ‘frango’ or ‘frangere’ which means ‘to break.’ This is a reference to the wood of the coffeeberry, which is considered somewhat brittle. ‘Frangere’ is also the base word for ‘fragile.’
‘Californica’ is, not surprisingly, the latinized name of ‘California.’ Coffeeberry is found outside of the geopolitical borders of California, however it is most abundant in this state.
You callin’ us fragile?
DO YOU have Frangula californica, or any other locally common plant in your landscape? We want to see them! Please send us a picture and we will happily feature it in a blog article! We do love our California plants, but we don’t discriminate! All are welcome! Send those beauties to [email protected], thank you.
Thank you for joining us again in this week’s horticultural adventures. Please come back next Wednesday for out next blog post, and as always, contact us for all your landscape needs!
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape
Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery – Take a hike around JPL and stop by this local nursery specializing in native plants – open to the public on the weekends
Theodore Payne Nursery – Specializing in local native plants for our region
Neel’s Nursery – If you happen to be driving through San Diego County, this nursery in Encinitas specializes in California natives