Doreen Fogle: Coffeeberry a good plant for building drought resiliency
Drought means less water for our landscapes and less water in the soil. And with the high heat events we’ve been having, any moisture in the soil or that’s applied to plants gets sucked out quickly.
We’re in a “megadrought” and we can’t foresee how long the drought will last or how long a reprieve we will have if we do get one. This is a sign of our heating planet and continuing to plant plants that have high or even medium irrigation needs may well end up being a lesson in disappointment and futility.
Mandatory water reductions are in place in Nevada City and Grass Valley, and those living with wells are on edge wondering if the well will keep up with their water needs through the fall.
So now is a perfect time to plan some landscape changes that will help your garden weather the current drought and those that may well come. Our world is changing, we’re getting hotter, and the risk of fire and drought are increasing. At the very least this year is showing how real the change is and we must stack all our cards in our favor.
What’s the answer?
Water-Saving Practices Help
For one, there are many water- (and plant-) saving practices we can use to help improve our drought resiliency. Keeping plants around us is extremely important because they are essential for keeping our environments cooler. I’ve found an excellent list of water-saving practices for landscapes from High Country Gardens, a mail order nursery in Colorado. Please look it up my searching High Country Gardens and drought resistant plants.
Choose the right plants
When it comes to plant selection, many native plants have low water need because they evolved with dry summers and periodic drought cycles.
And most offer beauty while adding extra benefits for our environment.
Here’s one shrub that’s useful yet gets little attention. It’s the California Coffeeberry (Frangula californica but previously known as Rhamnus californica).
It doesn’t provide us with berries for coffee, though. The native Americans did roast them and used them medicinally and for drink.
It’s an evergreen shrub that gets roughly six to 15 feet tall and six to 15 feet wide. It is a native plant to many parts of California and is quite drought tolerant.
You can find coffeeberry all around us in the native land. They can have a lot of variation in their shape and leaf color, some being greener and others having a more gray leaf color. But there are several varieties that have a more uniform appearance that are good for landscape use. More on those in a bit.
Some of coffeeberry’s benefits
This plant is beautiful and easy to grow. It tolerates a wide variety of soil types, and likes either full sun or part shade. It is moderately garden tolerant, and is OK with some summer water up to twice per month.
The foliage hosts up to 23 butterflies, including the Gray Hairstreak and the Pale Swallowtail Butterfly. If you find some holes in the leaves, you may be growing some butterflies.
Its flowers are not showy — they’re small, cream-colored, and bloom in late spring to summer. But they are important to our landscapes and ecosystem. They attract and feed a wide variety of insects: some that are beneficial to our gardens (keeping pests at bay) and the pollinators. Hummingbirds feast on the nectar, too.
The berry-like fruits turn from green to red to purplish black to black and are savored by birds in late summer.
Coffeeberry is deer resistant. But, as you may know, nothing is completely deer resistant. In dry years the deer eat more than they normally would, and if they bother your plants, Liquid Fence — used religiously — is your friend. But in wetter years your coffeeberry would be safe. Note that over-watered plants are more attractive to deer than those that are not.
This plant that is on many lists as a safe plant for fire-prone areas (which is now everywhere). In this case, it’s an adequately watered plant that can help with some fire resistance.
Coffeeberry is trimmable and can make good hedges. Plus it can be used on slopes for erosion control, as a foundation shrub, as a ground cover, and as a specimen plant.
Varieties to choose from
The coffeeberry plants that are in the wild vary quite a bit. It depends on soil, moisture level, sun exposure, and local genetics. You may not like them if you see a particularly straggly looking one. But there are several cultivated varieties that improve the uniformity of a coffeeberry planting and that have a look you are seeking in a shrub.
One is “Eve Case” which grows to four to six feet tall and four to six feet wide with rich green foliage. Another is “Mound San Bruno,“ growing as tall and wide as ”Eve Case“ but with a more dense and compact appearance. And ”Leatherleaf“ is a variety that gets taller reaching six to eight feet tall and wide.
Care for all of these is very easy.
When you google coffeeberry and look through the images you can find many examples of coffeeberries in gardens and landscapes to give you an idea of what it can look like.
One place you can see some nice coffeeberries is along Hwy 49 heading south out of Grass Valley. The roadside planting on the eastern side of the road is full of native shrubs and some of the rounded dark green shrubs are coffeeberry. But do the viewing only if you are a passenger! It’s a dangerous road.
Look up coffeeberry and its varieties on Calscape.org to learn more.
Choosing plants that are drought tolerant, especially native ones that help keep our ecosystem as healthy as possible, and using landscape practices that maximize water use will help keep our landscapes drought resilient so we can maximize the water and rainfall we do get.
Coffeeberry gives us a good shrub without using much water, while also providing extra ecosystem benefits. Ask your local nursery and plan to put some in this fall.
Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website mydelightfulgardens.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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