Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council Plants Resource Page

Plant of the Month - California Coffeeberry

Chaparral Honeysuckle

California Coffeeberry

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Plant Description

Common Name(s):California Coffeeberry
Scientific Name:Frangula californica
Family:Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn)
Plant Type:Shrub
Size:up to 15 feet
Habitat:Chaparral and coastal sage scrub
Blooms:May to July
Fire Response:Stump Sprout or Seed

California Coffeeberry - Frangula californica - native to California - is an evergreen shrub ranging from 1-15 feet in height and width. Lots of reddish shoots/branches arising out of the plant's center give the plant an impenetrable appearance. When in flower (usually May to July) - spend a moment looking at the plant and you may note the number and variety of pollinators stopping by to sample the nectar. Pollinated flowers become fruits (drupes) that start out green, transition to red and when ripe are nearly black in color. Birds and deer are known to consume the fruits and disperse the seed in the process. Best places to observe this plant? Chaparral and coastal sage scrub - Newton Canyon is where these images were captured.

This plant is member of the buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae) but deviates in a couple of ways.
Traits of the the Rhamnaceae family: 4 petals, bud scales, alternate OR opposite leaves, and branches with spines.
The botanical name was changed from Rhamnus californica to Frangula californica based upon research in Phylogeny and DNA. Two difference you can see - this plant has 5 petals and no spines on its branches. Name changes take years before guidebooks and nurseries catch up! There are six subspecies of this plant in California - mostly because the plant evolved in different soil types or local climates. Plants have been around longer than we have adapting to a variety of changes - local and global.

Flowers are tiny, greenish and symmetrical that grow in clusters of 5 to - 20 or more. These flowers are popular with bees, flies, butterflies and hummingbirds. The flowers require a hand lens to see their component parts. Five or six anthers (depending on the number of petals) circle the branched pistil (look hard at image 9).

Alternating narrow to widely elliptic with an acute tip, 1-3 inches long, grow on reddish-tinged flexible branches and petioles. Leaves tend to be adapted for their location. Towards the coast they tend to be thin, and green on both sides of the leaf. Inland, Leaves may be thicker, curl under at the margins, often making use of light colored fine hairs to conserve moisture. Leaf midribs are visibly raised (imagine paper glued onto a popsicle stick). New growth twigs and petioles (where leaves connect with stems) are red or yellow with green mixed in to modulate the color.

Native uses: Chumash Indians aged (more than a year!) the bitter bark and berries for purging and as a treatment for constipation. Chemicals found in the plant are glycosides. These are a class of phenolic compounds that increasing the action of smooth muscle found in hollow organs like the stomach and the large intestine. Other peoples used the leaves to treat poison oak, fruits were eaten fresh and raw or sun-dried by some tribes, while other tribes considered them toxic.

Fire response: This plant germinates from seed and can sprout from root crown.

CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names says: "Perhaps derived from the Latin frangere, 'to break'." A personal communication from John Kartesz supplied the information that the name refers to its extremely brittle wood. The species alder-buckthorn, Rhamnus frangula, bears a fairly old name, and the bark of that tree contained a glucoside with purgative or laxative qualities that was named frangulin by a chemist named Casselmann. The genus Frangula was published by Philip Miller in 1754. is the source of this info and the best site to learn the meanings of plant names!

Need to know more? Click this link to read a better researched article about California Coffeeberry

California Coffeeberry - Originally featured: December 2021
Last modified: November 09 2021 10:12:49.
Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, by Milt McAuley
Flowering Plants: The Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal and Chaparral Regions of Southern California, by Nancy Dale
Images Botanical Terms for Leaves