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.
Do you know why the name was changed? I love hearing about the “whys” of these things…
Susan, I am just a layperson when it comes to botany, but here is my understanding of the name changes. When more evidence is uncovered about the relationships of genuses and species, sometimes plants are lumped together where before they had been separate. These days the evidence is coming from the incredible amount of genetic lab work that is being done on all forms of life. When two genuses are lumped together, then the one that was sufficiently described first in the literature gets the preference for the name.
I hope you botanists out there will chime in if I’ve messed up on the details.
I found this reference when I googled: “This change is based on Generic limits in Rhamnus L. s.l. (Rhamnaceae) inferred from nuclear and chloroplast DNA sequence phylogenies by K. Bolmgren and B. Oxelman published in Taxon, Volume 53, Number 2, 1 May 2004 , pp. 383-1(-381)”
Now that’s a mouthful!
Some coffeeberry shrubs have green foliage while others have a blue-gray color. Does this variation occur within the same species?
Rich, I must admit I find this Frangula/Rhamnus issue confusing, but I do believe that sometimes it’s the same species, even nearby populations that have the foliage variation. Whatever the names of these plants end up being, it makes for some interesting cultivars.
Here in our local Orange County mountains there are Rhamnus californica with rich green leaves, and some that are quite tomentose and bluish. The owners of the nursery where I work, Tree of Life Nursery, selected a Rhamnus from a nearby creek area that has slender blue green leaves, and they named it ‘Bonita Linda’. I’m going to plant one of those in my yard this fall!
I have a coffeeberry in my yard. Planted 4 years ago. This summer the leaves are turning yellow on about 1/5 of the whole plant. I don’t recall that this has happened before. I have heavy clay soil but it drains well due to gopher action. I mulch with leaves from our elm. Do usually water about once per month. Any suggestions?
I have the same problem with the yellow leaves on my green coffeeberry and I am worried about the health of the plant. The yellow leaves are bright, and I wonder if the plant is screaming at me to do something. Help!
I have been removing the seeds, roasting them and making a hot beverage, like coffee! Heard that’s how it got it’s name, and if not, should be!! /:~} The juice is good too, slight fig flavor.
I’ve heard you can use it as a coffee substitute also. Glad you enjoyed it!
I have read several references that say all parts of the rhamnus californica are poisonous if ingested… sounds like that may not be true? I’m confused.
Glad you were wrong, lol!
Did some more searching and found these references as well. who knows on the net if anything we read is fact 🙂 but looks like at the least it is used as a laxative? How’d you feel Rex, after you drank the beverage…no issues? http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Frangula+californica
Have enjoyed roasting and brewing both the cleaned seed and the whole dried and roasted berry. Present naturally sweet hot drink. No unpleasant side effects. Have juiced the berry and drank about 6 oz. at a time. Slight fig taste, sweet, with a warm after taste that lingers, but not objectionable. Only discovered how good this is at the end of the season. Next year I plan on harvesting enough to make jelly, and save the seeds for “coffee” and who knows what else may happen.
Okay, I am so confused.. I just harvested some wild California coffeeberries due to an article I read online claiming that they are edible. (Taste sweet) Now that I’m lookin more into them articles are claiming that they “are” also known as buckthorns which ive read are poisonous. Can somebody please clear this up for me. I’m in the process of cleaning now and I’m on the verge of are these poisonous are not? I’m positive they are Frangula Californica. HELP! Lol
I planted a Coffee Berry cultivar in my tiny yard in Irvine. It gets full sun. It is thriving and beautiful. Next to it are a toyon and a fremontia, both doing well. However the ceonothus cultivar I put in needed a lot of water, ironically, and finally died.
I have a ‘leatherleaf’ cultivar in a pot, and it looks amazing. The leaves are dark, almost bronze, and curled like coast live oak.
I’ve been curious about tasting the berries. I think I’ll give it a shot next year.
Hello! I have roasted and brewed the coffeeberry seeds as well, and it makes a fabulous caffeine free beverage with no ill effects whatsover. I have heard that the coffeeberry is related to Cascara Sagrada, which is used in cleansing and dieting blends. (Laxative) So, maybe don’t drink too much?
California coffeeberry is a great plant for insects, including Lepidoptera. It is a nectar plant for such butterflies as Pale Swallowtail, Variable Checkerspot, Edith’s Checkerspot, American Lady, California Sister, Lorquin’s Admiral (fq), Mourning Cloak, San Bruno Elfin, Western Brown Elfin (fq), Gray Hairstreak, California Hairstreak, Gold-hunter’s Hairstreak, Hedgerow Hairstreak, Echo Blue, Great Copper, Tailed Copper,. Butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro notes its genus tends to be excellent for small butterflies with short tongues, especially hairstreaks. Butterfly gardener Barbara Deutsch finds it a favorite of Lorquin’s Admiral at her place near Pt. Reyes.
California coffeeberry supports butterfly caterpillars, as of Pale Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak and Echo Blue. Marc Kummel photographed a Brown Elfin ovipositing on the flower buds of California Coffeeberry.
Caterpillars of several moth species also eat California coffeeberry:
Saturniidae: Ceanothus Silk Moth (Hyalophora euryalus): preferred in the San Bruno Mountains (A Flora of the San Bruno Mountains). Western Sheep Moth (Hemileuca eglanterina).
Geometridae: Tissue Moth, Triphosa haesitata. Powell & Opler [Moths of Western North America] believe it to be the major Californian host.
Lymantriidae: Western Tussock Moth (Orgyia vetusta). California Tussock Moth (Orgyia cana).
Tortricidae: Orange Tortrix (Argyrotaenia franciscana), Clepsis fucana. Epinotia lomonana.
Cosmopterigidae: Midrib Gall Moth (Sorhagenia nimbosa).
Gelechiidae: Aristotelia rhamnina.
Nepticulidae: Stigmella diffasciae (fq). Acalyptris punctulata.
Thank you for the information Jeffrey. My wife and I have just planted over 100 plants including milkweed to attract butterflies, hummingbirds and others to our property. We need all the help we can get.
Jeffrey – Thank you so much, as always, for your insights about host and nectar plants for lepidoptera! As an aspiring ‘caterpillar rancher,’ I’ve planted so many California native plants based on your recommendations, with coffeeberries as the latest additions. As it looks like there are others on this thread who are boosting biodiversity in their gardens, I hope you don’t mind that I’m sharing your amazing resource “California Plants for Lepidoptera”:
Given the dire need to boost declining caterpillar populations, this is a much needed ‘go to’ resource!
I have a huge coffeeberry in Anderson Ca. about 8 feet tall shaded amongst many oaks. I was concerned if the plant was toxic to livestock (horses, donkeys, goats and bovine) as I have never seen them eat it. I was tempted to remove it for this reason but just couldn’t as it is a very beautiful and majestic plant. After doing some research I am considering planting the seeds to see if I can propagate new plants throughout the ranch and even around the pond area as we have a variety of fowl there. Any other information on seed gathering and preparation would be very much appreciated.
I weed at creec Crockett greenhouse. Our seeds are placed on top of a full 4 inch or 1 gallon pot full of soil. We do not cover them. They are on the seedling table outside and watered well 1 time a day. When the plants have 2 sets of true leaves, carefully separate into 4 inch pots to grow after the moon is full. Allow them to get some good roots before
setting in the garden.
Have you tried cuttings? Would you use soft wood?
This entire post absolutely ROCKS! Thank you for all the hard work you put into it. It really shows.
hopefully someone can answer this… I’ve been having trouble with my coffee berry plants after I installed 12 of them. About 7 are dying. It seemed like they all started from one plant and it spread out from there, the first plant going totally brown and, then a 2nd and as for the rest, about 7-8; they are showing many brown leaves, though still possessing some green ones. What happened? Surely, it was hot herein Laguna Niguel, California, but the other plants I put in the same area are doing fine. I have an olive tree, some lavender and Spanish…something. We’ve been watering the area, but for some reason these coffee berry shrubs are not happy. Here are some pictures.
Hi Jonathan. Sorry to hear about your coffeberry plants. It is possible that they struggling in the heat of the summer, especially if they were recently planted. In hotter inland areas, coffeeberry may need a bit more shade. Visit Calscape.org to learn more about this plant’s characteristics and growth habits. You may also need to dig down a a few inches to see how much water is getting to the root zone of the plant – too much or too little – and adjust your irrigation accordingly. Lastly, remember that the best time for planting and establishment is in the fall once temperatures have cooled and winter rains are on their way. Natives have adapted to this cycle and to receiving water during this time of the year.
One thought could be too thick of application of bark mulch! Make sure that it does not get too close too trunk! These plants should be able to naturalize by third year! You my want to check Mike Evans on Tree of Life web site watering info, such as watering when it,s a bit cooler. To help prevent fungus problems, good luck!
I have an eve case coffeeberry that is about two years old in dappled light. I’m in the inland empire so it has been hit, but it gets water. It was doing great but this morning I noticed that some of its leaves look dried and something is eating the leaves. It got holes all over. I didn’t see any bugs on it or under its leaves. I gave it a hard water spraying . What can be eating it? Thanks!
Sometimes the leaves being eaten is a good thing – it means our native caterpillars and butterflies and birds are being fed, which they really need! Usually it is momentary and doesn’t harm the plant, especially a big shrub like coffee berry. The dried part may be a bit more of a concern, but if overall the plant looks healthy I wouldn’t be concerned. It’s that time of year for a native plant to shed a few leaves as a result of drought stress. Hope that helps.
Thank you Laura. Makes me feel better. I’ll keep a close eye on it 😀
About your watering – it might be a good time to review what you’re doing.
Summer watering for shrubs like coffeeberry can be a little complex. Usually less is more! At Tree of Life Nursery, we have lots of watering advice and whole guides about it, but generally we recommend deep watering every 3-4 weeks, and you want to water between heat waves, not during.
Let me know if you would like more info.
Hi Gaby – I only learned recently about the importance of growing native plants so that they can provide food to caterpillars and other types of insects that feed the entire ecosystem. Since 96% of our terrestrial birds require caterpillars to feed their young, and those bird populations are declining dramatically, we need to do all we can to help them. Here’s a fascinating video that explains this – it completely changed my perspective (and in many ways changed my life) when I saw it in 2020: https://bit.ly/Tallamy-CAPlants
I hope you enjoy it!
I hope to plant an Eve Case coffee berry in a large pot. Any chance for success?
Why is my coffeeberry bush not making any berries? It hasn’t for the past 3-4 years. It is overgrown and I want to prune it back off of the house, but I don’t want to prune off any possible new berries. Is it safe to prune it back in August without cutting off potential berries?
How does one know when the USDA changes the botanical name? I’ve been searching for this plant in our county’s plant database as Rhamnus californica and couldn’t find it until I was just told the USDA recently changed the name to Frangula californica. Who knew? How do I stay on top of name changes like this?
I live in Ventura County. My daughter in San Diego told me about Tree of Life Nursery.
Do you think I could successfully grow a Coffee Berry plant in a large pot on a west-facing patio? It gets a lot of sun. What month is best to purchase and plant one? Are you familiar with Barron Brothers Nursery near me? Maybe they have one,
Laura Camp, I so appreciate all the readers’ questions and your informative answers.
I look forward to your response.
I have several coffeeberry bushes that have been growing wild for several years here in NW Sonoma county. We are a couple of hundred yards from the Pacific. . This year, almost all of the coffeeberry bushes have developed brown to black leaves. It seems to start at the tip with older leaves. Some bushes are still putting out new growth on the same branches, and that new growth looks healthy. Other branches on the same bush seem totally dead. I don’t see any insects that might have caused this. Any ideas as to what might be happening?
Our Coffee Berry is doing beautifully here in Simi Valley CA (inland part of Ventura County). In April I noted and photographed the flower clusters and was excited. This past week (mid-June) I noted that all the flower clusters have been eaten! Along with the leaves nearby the clusters… little bite marks. We are creating a pollinator oasis in our garden and I’m happy that someone enjoyed the blooms, but does this mean it won’t now go to berries? The berries were our goal for the birds that enjoy them. Who would have eaten the blooms? Thank you to anyone who can give me input.
Does anyone know any health benefits related to consuming the berries or the seeds for beverages?
I am thinking about playing several of these along a fence line to form an informal hedge adjoining a mostly native drought tolerant garden. But first I wanted to confirm that the plant & its berries are not toxic for dogs. Thanks.
According to California Poison Control System, Coffeeberry is toxic:
According to UCANR’s toxic plants list, Coffeeberry is considered to have minor toxicity, and may cause skin rashes or irritation:
I know this article is older, but I have a question about my San Bruno coffee berry. The leaves are turning orange/yellow on the tips. I planted it last fall; it’s late March now. The plant is in zone 9, and is in clay soil. It hasn’t experienced summer here yet. See the link for a photo. If anyone has advice, I’d appreciate it! I’d love to see this native plant happy in my yard.
Some flying insect at night is eating the Eve Case Coffeeberry, and Leather Coffeeberry new leaves. I went out at 2 am to discover this insect eating away. It flew away. But it looked like a large fly with double wings , mostly black and grey, the wings lighter grey. What is it and what do I do? Cover the plants at night?
Hi Donna – I have a similar situation with many of my native plants, since they co-evolved with various insects that are native to my region as well. The beauty of the situation, though, is that our plants are feeding an ecosystem that helps boost declining bird populations and has a tremendous ripple effect. The insect that is eating your coffeeberry is most likely being eaten in turn by some birds or lizards. If you have a moment, this talk by NY Times bestseller Doug Tallamy (Professor of Entomology at U. of Delaware) is very entertaining and informative. It completely changed my perspective: https://bit.ly/Tallamy-CAPlants
Right now I have leafcutter bees creating large ‘bite’ semicircles in my Western Redbud and it actually brings me joy to know that the ecosystem is working. Now I’m planting some cobweb thistles as I saw these same types of bees rummaging around in these in a friend’s garden: https://flic.kr/p/2nCmrqG
I hope all of this is helpful! Happy (native) gardening!