the humble coffeeberry

Fill in the blank:
California coffeeberries are __________

  1. versatile in the landscape
  2. important members of the ecosystem
  3. boring as dirt

Coffeeberries, Frangula californica (aka Rhamnus californica) are common plants in California native plant gardens. The plants stay green and leafy all year and provide a welcome evergreen background for other species that go through more extravagant bloom-and-bust cycles. They’re tough plants, and you can find clones that tolerate higher water parts of the garden as well as areas that subsist on natural rainfall.

The species produces berries that progress from red to purple to black over the course of the summer. Any plant that produces berries is likely to be an important food source for wildlife. Earlier in the season, in flower, it keeps pollinators happy.

An unknown cultivar of coffeeberry--in bloom! Look at those amazing flowers! (Don't go wetting yourself in excitement, now...)

But until recently, I’d viewed them as fairly uninteresting plants, and I’d have answered “3” to the fill-in-the-blank above. I had none in the garden.

That changed a couple years ago with the introduction to the garden of several plants of two different clones. In the wilds the typical form can get pretty large–fifteen feet tall in the shade, and more, and even wider. But garden selections let you have smaller coffeeberries that won’t need constant pruning to keep them at a reasonable size.

A closeup of the leaves on 'Eve Case'

I picked a couple plants of the classic ‘Eve Case’ cultivar, which has reported garden sizes of four to ten feet, depending on water and sun exposure. It’s a fairly informal plant, with fairly coarse leaves spaced fairly far apart on its stems. “Woodsy” would be an apt description for it.

By contrast, the leaves of 'Tranquil Margarita'

I also tried the cultivar ‘Tranquil Margarita,” which is offered by Las Pilitas Nursery. The nursery’s website gushes about this one: “It is the most beautiful coffeeberry I’ve ever seen. (At first I didn’t realize it was a coffeeberry!) Leaves are clean, shiny and rich looking. The whole plant looks like it belongs next to an English Tudor in London.”

A still-young plant of 'Tranquil Margarita,' looking a little more mannered than 'Eve Case'

Hyperbole? I think not. In describing plants for a California garden, saying a plant could look great in a Tudor garden could almost be seen as an insult. But I really really like this plant. So far it’s been a good, clean grower, nice and upright. For me it’s been faster than ‘Eve Case,’ but a gopher attack on the roots my Eve’s doesn’t render this a scientifically meticulous comparison.

There are at a few other cultivars that are out in the marketplace. Most common is ‘Mound San Bruno’–or ‘Mount San Bruno’–which grows fairly low and wide, with a pretty dense habit and typical fairly coarse leaves. ‘Seaview,’ a parent of ‘Eve Case,’ is an older variety that is reported to be a good, taller groundcover. (I haven’t observed any of this cultivar. There’s also a version of it called ‘Seaview Improved.’) ‘Leatherleaf’ has thicker, darker leaves than the typical form. ‘Little Sur’ gets mentioned occasionally, but I don’t see it listed on lists I’ve consulted. It’s probably one of the smallest versions.

There are probably other varieties and cultivars out there. If you have space you can always grow the unadulterated, unselected form of the species and earn bonus points for supporting genetic diversity.

So there you have it, the humble coffeeberry. I don’t think anyone would call it the sexiest thing with leaves, but as I get older I’m more and more attracted to plants that are sturdy and subtle over flashy and disposable horticultural one night stands. Treat the plant with respect and it’ll be there for you for many mornings to come.

9 thoughts on “the humble coffeeberry”

  1. Coffeeberries are humble, but I like the shape and dull sheen of the leaves. I have an ‘Eve Case’, which is growing slowly (still a foot and a half after 4 years from a gallon can. It’s too close to a path as well, but I’ll probably move the path. Sure hope this year is its time to ‘leap’ I’ll have to look for flowers. 🙂

  2. I have after all decided to include 2 coffeeberry in the hedge (Eve Chase). Your post makes me feel as if that was the right decision.

    Too bad I can’t get Tranquil Margarita, but shipping from Las Pilitas is quite costly. Well, hope Eve can do a job, let’s keep our fingers crossed for no gophers.

  3. I love coffeeberries, but maybe that’s because the three I’ve planted haven’t yet erupted into 15′ “hedges”. The Eve Case is still only about 15″ across after two years, and the San Bruno is still a baby at 6″. I installed a 1 gallon Chaparral Coffeeberry (R. californica tomentella) last fall on a west-facing slope, and am waiting to see how it fares. The Tranquil Margarita in your garden looks lush, btw – I’ve seen it on Las Pilitas’ website and have often wondered if it would thrive in our more southerly climes. Well, now I know and will add it to my next order from Las Pilitas. Great post, James!

  4. Widely used but under-appreciated is how I think of them. They’re my regular big-green-leaved shrub to combine with all the small-grayish-leaved plants that I use. I get sort of excited about them this time of year when their new foliage comes out an amazing green color, but I think I mostly don’t give them enough credit. I’ve never seen Tranquil Margarita up here, just Eve Case, Mound San Bruno, and Leatherleaf.

  5. How true that we tend to take our native, easy-to-grow plants for granted and lavish attention on the difficult ones. I, too, am ready to relent and cover ground with the un-fussy. Now if I can just find something with as much charm as your coffeeberry that will thrive here.

  6. I wasn’t a big fan, but as time goes by, I’ve learned to appreciate them as well. Especially after seeing some really nice mature specimens. Not flashy, but still very pleasant.

  7. I have 4 Tranquil Margarita coffeeberry plants from Las Pilitas nursery and have been very happy with them. The description by Bert Wilson, the nursery founder, is accurate and deserving. It is my favorite coffee berry garden cultivar. One plant that probably gets more moisture has reached 5-6 feet in 5 years after being planted from a 1 gallon pot, while the others that get less moisture have reached 4-5 feet in the same time frame. They have a beautiful, rounded, fairly shiny, bright green appearance with no pruning. They have done great in the clay soil in my San Jose yard on a dry north facing slope. In hot July and August, I try to water them a little once a week.

    1. Thanks for your observations on Tranquil Margarita! After a few more years’ growing it I can add that like many natives it can be sensitive to overwatering. A plant in heavy clay succumbed one warm summer after I’d given some repeated heavy soaking to some plants next to it. Still, a great plant with green foliage that’s a nice foil to the grayer colors of many other natives.

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