by Vivian Mazur, Inverness Garden Club
On a recent hike on Inverness Ridge in Marin County, we came across a particularly large and handsome coffeeberry adorned with fruits in all stages of ripeness—from green to red to black. I was reminded of what an attractive plant the California coffeeberry is and how often it is overlooked as a garden subject.
It is a member of the buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae) as is its cousin, ceanothus. Its botanical name used to be Rhamnus californica but was recently changed to Frangula californica. However, nurseries are more likely to know it by its former name. The common name, ‘coffeeberry’, comes from the appearance of the ripe berries and not their edibility, though several species of birds and small mammals relish the fruit.
California coffeeberry is widespread throughout most regions of California, favoring open woodland, brush canyonsides and chaparral. It is a large, evergreen shrub growing to 15 feet or more in the shade with an open structure and shiny, dark leaves. In the sun, it is more compact with lighter grey-green leaves. The young stems brighten the plant with their reddish color; the spring blooming flowers are greenish and quite small but attract many pollinating insects.
Coffeeberry is useful in the garden as an understory or background plant. Where screening is desired, it makes a fine informal hedge. It is also amenable to pruning so it can be shaped to emphasize its arborescent structure. It combines well with toyon, sages, ceanothus and other plants of the dry garden. There are several named cultivars: ‘Eve Case’ is smaller and more compact than the species with large berries; ‘Seaview’ is a ground cover variety; ‘Mount St. Bruno’ has a dense habit and is particularly tolerant of garden conditions. Coffeeberry’s virtue is in its adaptability; it will happily thrive in sun or shade and is unfussy about soil. It is an ideal plant for the sustainable garden.