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Beechleaf Buckthorn
Frangula betulifolia
California Buckthorn
Frangula californica
  (Eschsch.) A.Gray
Carolina Buckthorn
Frangula caroliniana
  Owner:   C. Michael Hogan    

Close-up of California Coffeeberry foliage
Frangula californica
California Coffeeberry

C. Michael Hogan PhD
September 27, 2008

California Coffeeberry is a widespread understory element of far western USA coastal forests and chaparral as well as the Sierra Nevada foothills, its long lasting high liquid content berries being an important food source for wildlife. The plant can have an amazing lifespan of one to two centuries and is useful in erosion control on steep slopes. Fruits resemble those of the commercial coffee bean.

California Coffeeberry ranges from southwest Oregon southward along the Sierra Nevada foothills and Coast Ranges of California and into Baja Mexico. There are disjunctive populations in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. This non-serpentine species is normally found below 700 meters in elevation. There are two subspecies of this plant: F. c. californica and F. c. occidentalis. The subspecies R. c. californica is associated with northern California Coastal Ranges, west-central California, South Coast Ranges and the Providence Mountains.

This plant is a generally compact shrub which grows to a height of one to three meters and occasionally up to five meters. The twigs are glabrous to finely hairy. (Jepson) The thick evergreen leaves are upon petioles of three to ten mm, with the blade ranging from two to eight cm and exhibiting acute reddish tips; leaves are ovate grading to elliptical, with (sometimes rolled under) margins serrate to entire. Upper and lower surfaces are somewhat smooth. Twigs of F. c. occidentalis are brown, while those of F. c. californica are reddish.

Inflorescences appear in May to July and manifest five to 60 flowers, with pedicels of less than 20 mm. The bisexual white flowers have a hypanthium of one to two mm and manifest five sepals. Initially the berry-like fruits are green occurring in clusters. By August the ripened black fruits are 10 to 15 mm across. For R c. californica the fruits are two-stoned and the leaf veins are prominent.

Within Northern California and southwestern Oregon, R.Californica is found in mixed evergreen, red fir and redwood forests. In the case of the mixed evergreen sites having ultrabasic parent materials, a shrub layer dominated by R.c. occidentalis and Vaccinium ovatum replaces the sclerophyllous subcanopy.(Sawyer) The open, conifer overstory typically consists of Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, Pinus lambertiana, Pseudotsuga menziesii and/or Pinus attenuata, with a sparse subcanopy of Quercus vaccinifolia, Lithocarpus densiflorus and Umbellularia californica. In the Siskiyou Mountain Range California Coffeeberry occurs with brushfield species of Arctostaphylos viscida, A. patula, A. canescens, Ceanothus cuneatus and C. integerrimus.

F. californica is a common species in coastal chaparral, sage scrub and mesic scrub oak chaparral in southern and central California. It is locally abundant on fog influenced zones in the Central Coast Range. The shrub also frequently occurs in forest mosaics throughout Southern and Central in oak woodlands, knobcone pine forest and woodland chaparral. Frequent vegetative associates are Ceanothus leucodermis, Heteromeles arbutifolia, Rhus trilobata, Rhamnus crocea and Toxicodendron diversilobum.

Other conifer forest groups in which California Coffeeberry is found include: redwood forest, red-fir forest, pine-cypress forest, douglas fir forest, blue oak/ digger pine, and douglas fir/tanoak/madrone forest. Rangeland associations include coastal sage scrub, scrub oak/mixed chaparral, northern coastal scrub, riparian woodland and coast live oak woodland.

F. california is browsed readily by mule deer within their winter range. Fruits of California Coffeeberry are one of the few juice-laden edibles that last until autumn and are correspondingly consumed by a broad spectrum of avafauna. (Dayton) Mammals eating these berries include black tailed deer and black bear. Woodrats and other small mammals eat the seeds of this shrub. Nutritional analysis demonstrates mature foliage content is quite modest in late fall and winter at 7.5 percent. Spring and fall values are correspondingly as high as 20 percent.

California Coffeeberry and its associate stratified vertical canopy structure provides nesting cover and perching sites for diverse bird species. This shrub is valuable in preventing soil erosion for steep, arid slopes, (Everett) and is sometimes chosen as a species to use for planting in such applications, furthermore, young plants produce significant crops of seeds that yield many further seedlings to additionally stabilize such slopes.

* Jepson Manual (1993) Regents of the University of California, University of California Press
* John O.Sawyer, Dale A. Thornburgh and Jarmes R. Griffin (1977). Mixed evergreen Terrestrial vegetation of California. Michael G. Barbour and Jack Major, eds., pp 359-381, John Wiley and Sons, New York
* William A. Dayton (1931). Important western browse plants. Misc. Publ.101. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. 214 p.
* Percy C. Everett (1957) A summary of the culture of California plants at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden 1927-1950. Claremont, Ca: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden,. 223 p.

(The foregoing was prepared for use by GlobalTwitcher by C.Michael Hogan, who retains copyright to this work. Facts derived from the above may be used by full citation.)

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