Tuesday, October 18, 2016

California Coffeeberry: Biodiverse Insect Magnet for Pollinators & Predators (Think Hedgerows)

Image - Susan Leahy (Oct 2013)
I've been waiting for an opportunity to highlight the pollinator/predator attracting abilities of California Coffeeberry for a very long time. I have a sense of photographer's remorse for not documenting my own California Coffeeberry ("Eve Case" & "San Bruno") shrubs all those years in Anza California for their pollinator/predator attracting abilities. As reported previously, these plants do not have anything close to a showy display when it comes to flowering. Yet, it was always as if my California Coffeeberries had a sort of potent pheromone infused nectar for which every winged insect couldn't resist. There is almost nothing in the scientific literature about this important ability of Coffeeberry. As we understand with most of the science stories out there on many flowers, it's always the showy display, colour, fragrance etc that has some evolutionary advantage. The problem with their description is that the storytelling is done from a human perspective on what a human thinks, sees or smells. Do insects and other critters really think and feel about something as we do ? What about all those night pollinators ? Surely colour and looks don't come into play. California Coffeeberry breaks all the rules here. From a human perspective, there is nobody would ever  plant a California Coffeeberry for it's showy beautiful fragrant flowers. Because from a human viewpoint, none of those good qualities exist. In the photo above and below, take a real close look at those flower clusters. 

Image - Mother Nature's Backyard
Clearly we cannot simply judge which shrubs would be ideal for attracting beneficial insects to take control of pests based on mere outward appearance of flowers. The California Coffeeberry, while having gorgeous foliage and variability in fruit colour throughout the year, is definitely not high on anyone's list for it's flowering beauty contest awards. Judging by mere outward appearance would be a mistaken viewpoint with regards this plant and one based on ignorance of just what it's true potential really is and why. I'm not the only one to have noticed Coffeeberry's subtle unseen ability to cause a plethora of insects to go insane when it blooms. Actually, at my old place up in the San Jacinto Mountains, I would often see insects huddling around even immature flower clusters long before they opened. Two quotes below prove what I've been saying all this time. The first one is from a San Diego artist, photographer & garden enthusiast, James Soe Nyun. The second one comes from the University of California's Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources' author, Harold McDonald, avid native plant gardener. 
"The coffeeberry’s flowers are much more nondescript to humans. On the recent garden tour I spoke to a homeowner who was wishing that she hadn’t planted her coffeeberries so close to paths because the bugs seem to go crazy over its blooms, more so than just about any other native plant. Here we have the humble blooms of Frangula (Rhamnus) californica ‘Eve Case.’ "
"Coffeeberry is like some of the best kind of people: not particularly flashy, but always handsome, dependable and low maintenance. We appreciate the green it provides throughout the year. All manner of flies and bees appreciate the tiny white flowers (I hear a quiet roar each time I pass the ones by my back steps), and the berries all seem to disappear, so I assume the birds are enjoying them surreptitiously!"
My own personal experience with California Coffeeberry in Anza California
Image Mine (May 2013)

In the foreground below the Jeffrey Pine which was transplanted
from Garner Valley back in 1986, this Coffeeberry cultivator is
"Mound San Bruno" which was planted back in 1994. 

Image Mine - 'San Bruno'
My own personal experience with the Coffeeberry's pollinator qualities came quite by accident. I selected California Coffeeberry for it's bright green foliage and multicoloured berries. I never gave a thought about the flowers. In the photograph above is a "Mound San Bruno" which is a lower growing small cultivator under that Jeffrey Pine. Up on the hill behind the Jeffrey is a California Holly (or Toyon) and behind that is my "Eve Case" cultivator of California Coffeeberry. That was the larger shrub and from it volunteers spread by means of Scrub Jays planting seeds were a common occurrence. But what caught my attention one day while I walked past the shrub in bloom (always the first shrub to bloom), was a fairly load humming or roaring sound as Harold McDonald made mention of in the second paragraph above. And as James Soe Nyun mention in his story, the bugs insects go crazy over the blooms. I had never seen so many diversified groups of insects scampering over each other for a fix of whatever it was making everyone high.
Bees, Wasps, Flies, Mosquitoes & Gnats, oh my
Of course the obvious critters that come to mind when you mention bees and wasps are Honey Bees and Yellow Jackets. But there are 100s or maybe 1000s of these types of creatures, the majority of which we've probably never seen, or if we do, we've never given a second thought other than, well it's just some other little bug. But these are the type of beneficial predators we want to attract. While the large ones will also often hunt prey and provide pollinator services, it's those smaller ones that really attack and kill the herbivore pest bugs which eat our garden and farm crops. This is where the plant's true purpose shine through.
Photo: Megan O’Donald

Honey Bees on California Coffeeberry
 (Frangula californica/Rhamnus californica)

Image - Marc Kummel (Oct 2013)

Tachinid Fly (Cylindromyia, Tachinidae, Diptera)
on native Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis, Asteraceae)

Image - Marc Kummel (July 2015)

Small bristly Tachinid Fly (Tachinidae, Diptera)
ovipositing on Coffeeberry
Adult Tachinid Flies visit flowers, but their larvae are parasitic on other insects out in the wilds like Scorpions, Centipedes many spiders and especially herbivore insects like caterpillars and help control them. They are beneficial insects - except for the insects they parasitize! Here is a good resource for Techinid Flies:
Overview of the Tachinidae (Diptera)
Image Marc Kummel (June 2015)

Bee Fly (Thevenetimyia, Bombyliidae, Diptera)

 on a flower of native Coffeeberry

Image - Marc Kummel (April 2015)

Crane Fly (Tipulidae, Diptera) 

 California Coffeeberry (Frangula californica, Rhamnaceae)
Butterflies & California Coffeeberry
The next group that were always obsessedly attracted to my California Coffeeberry shrubs were members of the butterfly family (Both Butterlies & Moths). Mostly they hovered and rarely landed. You could always tell that they wanted to though, but were intimidated by the mass of tiny flies, wasps, bees, mosquitoes, gnats and other things crawling all over each other on these flower clusters. Pale yellow Swallowtails were also a big draw to Coffeeberry, but they too didn't like the party animal house gang who showed up at the Flower Festival.
Image - Marc Kummel (May 2015)

American Lady and Lorquin's Admiral butterflies
 on Coffeeberry flowers

Image - Marc Kummel (May 2013)

Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) butterfly on native
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica, Rhamnaceae)

Image - Marc Kummel (May 2014)

Gold-Hunter's Hairstreak (Satyrium auretorum) butterfly
 on Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica, Frangula californica)

Other Critters who visit California Coffeeberry
Image - Mark Kummel  2017
This is ant looks like the common Velvety tree ant (Liometopum occidentale) which is common to the San Diego backcountry, especially under Coast Live Oaks.
Image Marc Kummel (July 2014)

Ants (Formicidae) tending aphids (Aphididae) on
 Coffeeberry (Frangula californica, Rhamnaceae)
One comment to note here on Aphids. I also had some Aphids and Ants on the Coffeeberry, but mainly on the tips of new leaf buds. But never fear, Coffeeberry nectar grabs the attention of Ladybugs too. 😉 
Image - Marc Kummel - 2017
Interestingly, my Coffeeberry "Eve Case," always had it's entire leaf canopy loaded with so many droplets of sticky honeydew that the leaves looked glossy wet. They were very sticky and many of the insects were as much attracted to the leaves as flowers. My smaller "Mound San Bruno" variety didn't have as much of a sticky leaf problem, but they still loved the blooms. In all those 20+ years of gardening, not once did I ever employ the use of synthetic science-based pesticides on my 3+ acres. Between all my chaparral hedges (Coffeeberry, Ceanothus, California Holly & Flannel Bush or Fremontodrendron), the insect pest control balanced the rest of the property. Oddly, numerous different kinds of beetles also climbed into the mixed orgy of insects climbing over one another on the flower clusters. 
Image - Marc Kummel (May 2015)

Lots of beautiful beetle butts on this native
Coffeeberry (Frangula californica, Rhamnaceae)

Image - Marc Kummel (June 2015)
Metallic Wood Boring Beetle (Acmaeodera, Buprestidae, Coleoptera)
 on native California Coffeeberry

“Nature is not competitive. It is ruthlessly collaborative” - Spencer Smith (rancher)
It's sad when you realize that it's mostly the common people who actually work & reside outside of mainstream Academia & the Scientific community who are the ones who have to pushed for a more biomimetic approach to caring for this planet. Spencer Smith is one of those as are Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown. But there are also many well known institutions who have taken the bold step of rejecting mainstream science-based methodologies with regards the usage of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Unfortunately for all of us, their's is not the science that rules our world. At times many of these people who have chosen to pursue a course of holistic biomimicry have been criticized for their supposedly pseudoscientific course of action by the Scientific Orthodoxy of Academics who have prior industrial commitments. Nothing about biomimicry is anti-science, rather the so-called "Green Revolution" we have all been force fed since Elementary School is just plain bad science which is based on ignorance of how nature really works. But not all Academics and Scientific Researchers have bought into the conventional line of thought. One group I have followed is the Entomology Department at UC Berkeley along with the Kremen Lab Group. For me personally, I have a strong interest in California's Chaparral Plant Community and the potential for beneficial usage of such plants in attracting beneficial insects for pest control by means of hedgerows. I've written about this before with info from the Xerces Society. This group has achieved excellent results through real world plantings of chaparral hedgerows adjacent to agricultural farm fields in California's Central Valley. Yet very little discussion is found in mainstream Media journals. The group has also selected predetermined chaparral species which been proven to be the most effective in attracting the beneficial predators, along with providing the proper nesting habitat for their young. Consider this chart below which provides a list of the best chaparral species they have used along with the times of year they are most effective bloomers. 

Well, those are some of the most popular and I must say easiest shrubs to maintain. Many of the sites I have visited on this subject are recommending drip irrigation, but for me in the short term & long haul, it's initially expensive, needs maintenance of the head fittings because of poor water quality or insects invading looking for water and then wildlife in general (Coyotes, Rabbits, Ground Squirrels, etc) will chew into the soft pipe looking for water. So rather than wasting money on an expensive drip system which will need various replacements parts from damage and wear (not to mention keeping the shrubs on life-support forever, instead of maturing), I would recommend establishing the chaparral hedgerow by means of the Groasis Waterboxx Technology planting system which directs water downwards, encourages root growth straight down into subsoil layers and mycorrhizal blended mix within the soil at time of planting the seedlings. This has already been successfully done in numerous desert areas for windbreaks around the globe.

Image - designrevolution.org

Image - groasis.com
Take note of the photo on the right. Every 5 minutes a giant truck from Minera Cupa, Spain passes loaded with rocks that are replanted with biodegradable waterboxxes. These waterboxxes are being used all over the world for mine site reclamation projects and vegetative programs to green deserts around the Earth. This is where water savings comes into play, plus these boxes can be used over and over if they are not the biodegradable type. Mexico has purchase one million of these planting boxes with 80,000 going to desert restoration projects in Baja California. This would be the cheapest and most inefficient way of establishing chaparral hedgerows. Prior to planting however, farmers could install an underground out of sight simple deep pipe irrigation system infrastructure to be used maybe once or twice a year, perhaps not at all if rainfall totals ever normalize or chaparral root systems reached valley floor water tables. But it would always be available as a back up system.

Image - University California Davis

Can you identify some of the chaparral plants being used in the hedgerow above ? Mexican Elderberry, California Holly or Toyon, California Coffeeberry, Coyote Brush, California Buckwheat and California lilac or Ceanothus. Even a few native bunch grasses. Their purpose in the hedgerow as in the wild is to provide not only valuable food sources, but also a habitat for all beneficial pollinators and predators. Much like the larvae of this adult syrphid fly on the right, called hover fly, which will feed on aphids. The other important factor is maintaining a good soil and gravel mix which will provide good ground nesting habitat for many of these critters who dig burrows, capture and paralyze pest prey and stuff them down the hole for their young to feed on until they hatch.

Image - University California Davis

One of the more interesting facts I found in their research was that not just any plants will do for attracting those good pollinator/predator insects. In fact the wrong plants will be a magnet for the pest insects. Farm fields with weedy margins loaded with non-native annuals or ruderals are a haven for the bad bugs. This makes sense to me as most of those types of ruderal plants have no real defense mechanisms. Most of their resources go into offensive strategies. Like putting all energies into seed production to make more of themselves. Ever notice that many of these weeds are quite often loaded with pests ? They have no defenses. These Stinkbugs in the photo here on the right are some of the major pests that damage crops. Take a look at the weedy field margin above. Notice any familiar plants ? Black Mustard, Malva or Cheeseweed, Sow Thistle & Wild Radish all host plants to not only Stinkbugs, but also cucumber beetle, Lygus and Flea Beetles. Clearly another reason to plant chaparral hedgerows (which create mycorrhizal soil systems which outcompete weeds for nutrients) and removal of weedy margins. 
Other Hedgerow Components of Note: Baja Fairy Dusters, Gold Finches & other predator birds
Image - Horticulture Limited

Baja Fairy Duster (
Calliandra californica)

One important plant of note for many of the agricultural areas in the southwest's desert areas where much of the agriculture is performed. Baja Fairy Duster is an excellent pollinator and predator attractant shrub. Being a desert plant with deeper root systems and it's tolerance for high heat, it should make an excellent addition to a Hedgerow in desert environments. My mum's place in El Cajon California where I planted one in her front yard has a continuous 3 or 4 months long period of blooming during the hottest times of the year and attracts almost as many beneficial insects as California Coffeeberry. The other side benefits are all the predatory birds like finches and sparrows, etc. Don't forget many Hedgerow folks have also placed Owl & Kestrel nesting boxes on posts in Hedgerows. These birds are predators to rodents which are also crop pests. Pest birds on field crops were found to do the same amount of damage irrespective of type of plant communities or none at all. Hedgerows do not increase bird pests. I've provided a link below.
Chaparral Hedgerow establishment, Maintenace, & Irrigation
Hedgerow Establishment with Groasis Waterboxx
Maintaining Hedgerows with Deep Pipe Irrigation
Hedgerows enhance bird abundance and diversity on farms
Chaparral Hedgerows for Commercial Agriculture
California Agriculture: Hedgerows enhance beneficial insects on farms in California's Central Valley
Hedgerows for California Agriculture
Xerces Society: Conservation of Native Plant Pollinators in Organic Farm Systems
NATURE: Nature Doesn’t Hurt Farmers, It Helps
Further Reading & Photography References  
Marc Kummel's (Treebeard) Flickr Photostream


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Arvind, bookmark this and use it as a reference

  2. Really enjoyed reading your article and the pictures were really great. I'll be back. May I share your blog with my friends who are embarking on "native-fying" their gardens?? Love the insect information.

    1. Thanks Karina, no problem, I wrote it as a concentrated resource for people to read and learn and do their wn experimentation and even improve upon.


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