Looking for a local beauty that needs no nurturing, no feeding, thrives on neglect, and attracts all sorts of desirable visitors? Then you're looking for the California Coffeeberry. It fits so easily into so many Californian settings, it's surprising that so few people know about it. Birds flock to this bush, which often needs no watering once established.
A native of California, this bush got its name because of its resemblance to the bush that creates the berries used to make your cup of Joe. Don't brew it, though. Native Americans used the berries as a laxative.
Different forms of Coffeeberry vary from 6-12 feet tall. You can use it in place of Indian Hawthorn, a popular non-native shrub. As a California native, Coffeeberry has adapted to local conditions, so it requires little or no water in most areas. Evergreen and fast-growing, it works very well as a hedge or screen. Or, you can let it grow out for a more rounded look. Because of its dark green leaves and red and black highlights, Coffeeberry looks exceptionally good planted against a redwood fence.
As a native understory plant, California Coffeeberry is well adapted to the environment under oaks and most other shade trees. It will also work in full sun, especially along the coast. With more sun, you will get a denser shrub.
Coffeeberry is a dual-purpose bird plant. The berries of Coffeeberry, which turn black in the fall, attract California native bird species like California Towhees and Thrashers. The shrub also provides an excellent nesting habitat for other birds. Deer generally will not eat it, so you can plant it in exposed areas, even outside your fence.
California coffeeberry (Rhamnus califonica) is readily available at nurseries that carry California native plants. If you like a large shrub, use the wild species. For a compact, smaller plant, choose "Eve Case" or "Mound San Bruno". "Tranquil Margarita" offers larger, less-rounded leaves. And for dark green, deeply textured leaves, try "Leather Leaf", a cultivar.
Plant this shrub in natural soil. Coffeeberry will grow in sand or heavy clay soils with no trouble. Mulch 4-6 inches deep on the surface of the soil around your Coffeeberry. This will help encourage beneficial microorganisms in the soil, retain moisture, and inhibit weeds. Just keep it an inch or 2 away from the trunk to prevent problems with insects and disease. Water once a week until established, which can take 1-2 years. If you're in an area that receives less then 15 inches of rainfall, then regular winter watering will be required throughout the plant's life.
Photos courtesy of Penny Wilson. Article by Penny Wilson. Penny is a gardening writer who specializes in California native plants.