California Coffeeberry

by Vivian Mazur, Inverness Garden Club

California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica or Frangula californica)

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.

15 thoughts on “California Coffeeberry

    • 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!

  1. 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!

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

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  9. 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.

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