The native coffeeberry shrub is like a starting offensive lineman: not fancy or a showman, but an important team player who gets the job done without fanfare. It seems the only time you hear a lineman’s name mentioned is when he’s caught for a holding penalty, and you rarely hear the mention of coffeeberry on the garden team, yet it’s a very common shrub in Northern California.
Linemen are underpaid and coffeeberry is underrated. They’re both under appreciated and deserve merit. Easy to grow and adaptable, coffeeberry (rhamnus californica) should make first string in our area’s gardens, mainly as a handsome foliage bush. Every month of the year, the leaves of this evergreen plant look fresh and clean, usually with scarce pest damage. Its leaves are so variable in size and color (one-to-three inches and gray to rich green) that every coffeeberry bush you plant becomes unpredictable as to how it’ll wind up looking.
Its branch color further illustrates its unpredictability and individuality. You may get one with brown branches, and yet another with gray or even red.
Coffeeberry’s miniature flowers are green, appearing modestly in clusters during April and May. From a distance, they’re barely recognized as flowers, but up close they’re appealing and unique, attracting beneficial insects.
The beautiful berries of the coffeeberry bush add greatly to its distinctive character. The large berries evolve as green and hard fruits in late spring, transform to red by late summer, then climax to black when ripe in early autumn. The berries aren’t tasty to humans, but birds seek them out, especially wild pigeons. The fruits come after about four years of rapid growth.
Coffeeberry is right at home in a garden corner or in a long and natural hedge that doubles as a screen. Ideal as a windbreak, coffeeberry works well massed on slopes or dotted in the background. It’s also native to the coast and foothill/chaparral communities, where it tends to grow to around 8 feet tall.
In another native scenario, California’s more sheltered low-elevation oak and pine forests, coffeeberry can become a small tree, up to 16 feet tall, with a looser, less-compact and more dainty growth habit. By planting these plants in all of these situations, a gardener mimics its natural range and winds up with different-looking coffeeberry plants serving different purposes.
In full sun, coffeeberry mixes well with bottlebrush, hibiscus, smoke tree grevillia and crape myrtle. In sheltered situations, coffeeberry fits in with camellia, Japanese maple, nandina, above azaleas and star jasmine and beneath high-limbed Chinese tallows, deciduous oaks and linden trees. In a native chaparral setting, blend coffeeberry with manzanita, sugar bush, redbud and toyon.
Once established, coffeeberry is very drought tolerant, but will benefit from some summer irrigation. Although no pruning is necessary, especially if planted in the right space, coffeeberry is amenable to it. Except for aphids (rinse off with hose blast or attract ladybugs), coffeeberry has few known enemies and usually stays healthy for decades.
Marc Soares lives in Redding. He is a landscape consultant for already existing gardens. He’s also the leader of Indigo Brew, a jazz band. Upcoming gigs include 2 weekends at C.R. Gibbs on Hilltop Drive in Redding: May 9 and 10 and May 23 and 24, 7:30-10:30 p.m.
He is the director of the West Valley High School Band, and swim coach for the Anderson Aquagators and West Valley High School.
Soares is also author of “100 Hikes In Yosemite National Park,” and “Snowshoe Routes of Northern California – The Mountaineers.” He can be reached at email@example.com.