Plant of the month: Frangula Californica

You might guess that Frangula californica (also referred to as Rhamnus californica) gets its common name, coffeeberry, from the red berries that resemble the beans we roast to make a certain caffeinated drink consumed usually in the mornings. But don’t be fooled; the berries on this perennial shrub are not edible by humans.

The coffeeberry is an evergreen shrub native to the Western U.S. It is found prominently in a variety of environments in California ranging from coastal and chaparral regions to forest areas. Since it is found in a variety of conditions, it is a hardy plant and relatively easy to maintain; it can tolerate a wide range of soil types, enjoys either full sun or part shade, and as a California native, it is drought tolerant. During its first year of planting or transplanting, it will need light summer watering.

Unlike many of the plants featured in this blog, the coffeeberry doesn’t have extravagant, richly pigmented flowers. The blooms that eventually turn into the shrub’s name-designating berries, are tiny, pale white-green flowers with five petals. The berries grow to about 1-1.5 centimeters in size and turn red, then purple, and black over the course of the summer and are irresistible to all kinds of birds, black tailed deer and black bears.

The plant’s vivid green leaves grow off of dark red branches. The shrub grows up to 8-10 feet tall and makes a great hedge plant. Popular garden cultivars (or bred varieties) can be a bit more compact such as “Eve Case” or “Mound San Bruno.”  It is also useful for erosion control on dry steep hillsides. This evergreen shrub is a good backbone plant for any native garden though, adding structure and greenery year round when many other plants have gone dormant.

Native California tribes such as the Ohlone and the Chumash used the leaves as a laxative. The leaves have also been used to heal infected wounds, or to treat skin irritation from poison oak. Other medicinal uses include using the bark to treat influenza and as a kidney remedy, and heating the plant’s root to treat toothaches.

To learn about the coffeeberry, click here.

For tips on growing plants that are disease and pathogen free, see guidance here and here.

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