I love dual-purpose plants. They could be good eating and good looking, serve a purpose, or feed animals. Sometimes I come across a plant that serves nature and me, and that’s what I love about gardening. Feel the same? You should consider growing coffeeberries.
Although it will only provide you a handful of sweet, juicy berries, it has plenty of other uses, which we will discuss below.
If you want to learn all about this increasingly popular plant, let’s get going. You won’t regret planting this wonderful specimen, and the wildlife around you will thank you for it, too.
What are Coffeeberries?
California coffeeberry (Frangula californica) is a small, medium, or large evergreen shrub that grows between 18 inches up to 15 feet in height depending on the cultivar. You can find it growing natively throughout most areas of California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
This plant is highly attractive to native birds, insects, and butterflies, so it’s perfect for a wildlife garden.
Traditionally used by native Americans for food and medicinal purposes, you can plant coffeeberry as an understory specimen or an informal hedge. When California buckthorn, as it’s also called, receives plenty of water, it’s fire resistant due to its thick growth and ability to withstand burning.
Coffeeberry is also well used in erosion control on steep banks. It is especially good for regenerating dry, unused slopes.
Part of the buckthorn family, California coffeeberry produces berries that go from green to dark purple or black in the summer. The berries have a sweet, almost fig-like taste.
Native Americans used the berries as a laxative, so keep that in mind. Dont go eating too many berries at a time. Don’t ever eat the leaves and branches. They’re toxic.
Grow coffeeberries in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 to 10.
Best Cultivars of Coffeeberry
There are various cultivars available based on the size and growth habits you require. If you have plenty of space, try growing any of the coffeeberries available. If you need a certain size, you might want to check with a local nursery to see what they have in stock.
This is a compact cultivar. It will grow between five to eight feet tall and the same wide. You can easily prune Eve Case to shape. It has vibrant green leaves.
With grey to green foliage, ‘Bonita Linda’ grows up to 10 feet tall and is tolerant of partial shade. This cultivar makes a wonderful climbing specimen.
Another compact variety, ‘Little Sure’ has dark green leaves. Fully grown, it will reach about four feet tall and wide.
Mound San Bruno
This compact cultivar makes a good ground cover. Or you can just let it grow to its full size, which is around five feet tall and wide.
This cultivar is perfect for ground coverage at just 18 inches tall. It lays flat to the ground and has dark green leaves. This is a prolific berry producer.
While it can grow up to eight feet tall, you can also keep leatherleaf compact to around five feet tall with good pruning techniques. Dark foliage makes for a good backdrop to lighter plants, and it’s cold tolerant to around 5ºF.
There are two ways to propagate coffeberries, or you can just head to the store and buy a sapling. The first is by seed, which is the better of the two because it’s more reliable. The second is by cuttings, which has a higher failure rate.
Propagating by seed is a fairly simple method. Although they are slow to germinate and grow, your patience will be rewarded. Coffeeberries can live for 100-200 years.
Collect seeds from the ripe, black berries in late summer to early fall. Each berry contains two seeds. Squeeze them out and rinse the seeds well.
Plant right away or keep stored seeds dry in an airtight container. They should last up to a year.
If you’re ready to sow the seeds straight away, plant them in pots of good quality seed-raising soil and keep it moist. If you choose to dry the seeds for later planting, you’ll need to cold stratify them.
To cold stratify the seeds, soak them in water for 24 hours. Place them in a moist paper towel and into a sealable bag. Keep this in the fridge for three months.
It will take around 45 days for the seeds to germinate, but check them every two weeks or so. Make sure the seeds aren’t moldy and the towel is moist. If the paper towel is too wet or falling apart, replace it with a new one. Replace the sealable bag at the same time.
Once the seed has germinated, it’s ready to plant. There should be a new shoot coming from the seed called a radicle. When it is a quarter to a half inch long you can plant it, but be careful not to damage the radicle.
Use a container at least five inches deep. Plant the seed about a quarter inch and cover. Some people place the seed on the surface as it would be in nature. See what works best for you.
Water the seed-raising soil well, but don’t saturate it. Allow the seed to grow for two to three months before planting outside.
Take hardwood cuttings that are at least a fourth-inch thick. You’ll need about four or five nodes. Cut at a 45-degree angle.
At the top of the cutting leave one or two leaves, and remove the rest. Dip the angled end in rooting hormone.
Push the cuttings into a container filled with seed-raising soil. Keep it moist for around 60 days before checking on root development.
Plant outside in fall, summer, or spring.
How to Care For Coffeeberry
Plant coffeeberry in full sun or partial shade. You’ll notice the difference in the foliage of those planted in full sun and those in partial shade. The ones in the sun are greener and brighter. The ones in partial shade will be darker.
The soil must be well draining, but coffeeberry will grow in loamy, sandy, or clay-based soil. The pH should be between 5.0-8.0.
Even though coffeeberries are drought tolerant, it’s a good idea to mulch them well to suppress weeds and retain moisture. In their natural environment, they are often surrounded by leaf mulch from the other trees. Try to recreate that.
Water at least twice a month during summer in the first two years of growth. If you get plenty of rainfall, that should be sufficient. Once the plant is established, it shouldn’t need any supplemental water.
Coffeeberry responds well to pruning and can be shaped into a hedge. If it gets too big or messy, it’s an easy plant to reshape.
Prune in summer when it’s dry to prevent disease.
Dead, dying, or diseased branches should be cut back to the trunk, or to the nearest healthy branch.
Companion Planting for Coffeeberry
Coffeeberry makes for a good understory, or as a larger plant in the background with smaller ones in front. Try:
Problems and Solutions for Growing Coffeeberry
Coffeeberry is a really hardy plant and not much affects it. Let’s look at the few issues it does sometimes have.
This is a fungal issue caused by Fusicladium, Venturia, or Spilocaea species of fungi. Scab is usually an issue in unusually wet seasons. Hot, dry conditions may get rid of it.
You’ll initially see yellow spots on the eaves that slowly turn dark as the disease progresses. Fungal growth forms on the undersides of leaves before they become twisted and drop off the plant.
To avoid scab make sure you water the base of the plant and prune to allow plenty of airflow. If scab develops, make sure to remove any fallen leaves that exhibit symptoms.
Aphids like coffeeberries, especially if the plant is dense and has little airflow. Read our article on how to identify and deal with aphids in your garden here.
When leaf miners are around, you’ll see yellow squiggly lines in the leaves. This is the larvae mining through the leaf. The adults are little black flies that do little damage. It’s the larvae that cause problems.
Left too long, leaf miners can cause serious damage to the coffeeberry.
You can spray with insecticide when you see the signs, but often it may be too late. To learn about identifying and addressing a leaf miner infestation, head to our guide.
Sudden Oak Death
Despite the name, sudden oak death affects a number of trees, especially in coastal areas. It’s a water mold pathogen that causes other problems such as leaf blight and other canker-type diseases.
You’ll notice twigs dying back in small and then large numbers. Cankers on the bark are another sign, along with leaf spots. These look like dark bruising on the leaves with a lighter center and dark outer edges.
There is no cure for sudden oak death, but spraying of copper fungicides may go some way toward slowing the progress of the disease.
Top Tips for Growing Coffeeberry
- Mulch well. Apply at least three inches of mulch to mimic the natural environment of coffeeberry.
- Water deeply at least twice a month in the first two years if the summers are dry.
- Propagate with seeds because the success rate is high compared to cuttings.