Tag Archives: cultivars

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.

from seed, the easy version

Fall: Prime time to sow many seeds in California’s mediterranean climate. Self-sown generations of clarkia, poppies, baby blue eyes, buckwheats and lupines are showing up all around the garden.

But this year has pulled me in lots of directions and I haven’t put a lot of effort into sowing seeds. Also, part of this lack of motivation is an attempt to accept the reality that the garden is pretty full as it stands, and I try resist the delusion that a plant growing from a tiny seed won’t take up as much space as a nearly mature one from the nursery. Consequently the only active seed-sowing I’ve taken part in has been limited to two very different kinds of plants: the California-native bladderpod and some carnivorous plants.

The bladderpod was mainly an experiment. The pods that give Isomeris arborea its common name are full of seeds the size of dried peas. How easy would they be from seed?

Very easy, as it turns out. I opened up a couple pods and buried the seeds about a quarter to half inch in these pots just two weeks ago. Here they are, showing almost 100% germination and phenomenal seedling vigor.

The more upright of my two young bladderpod plants

Now that I see they’re really easy from seed I can check out the other thing thing I was curious about. I have two bladderpods in the garden. One is slow-growing but is assuming a nice upright posture. The other is an exuberant floppy mess of green-gray leaves and yellow flowers. Both forms have their use in the garden, but I was really hoping for more upright growth patterns when I put them in the garden.

My seedlings come from the more upright plant, so we’ll see whether they follow mom’s growth habits when placed in various locations around the yard. Is the difference in growth habit nature or nurture? Might I have a consistently strain of upright-growing bladderpods on my hands?

In the native plant community growing specific strains or cultivars is often looked down upon as reducing natural variation and dumbing down the gene pool. But in the garden it’s useful to know what kind of plant you’re getting. A gardener might be disappointed to end up with a low mound instead of an open upright shrub. The customer might never buy another native plant again and instead fill their yard with hydrangeas. They’d spend thousands of gallons watering their hydrangeas, there’d be no more water for people and plants, and civilization as we know it would collapse.

Anyway, so far this has been really easy. Next post I’ll look at my more high energy-input efforts to grow some carnivorous plants from seed.