Lately, it’s hard not to notice shrubs with bright red berries blooming just about everywhere in the City. But look more closely as only one of these is the beautiful Toyon, a small tree also known as Christmas berry or California Holly. You can distinguish Toyon from the non-native Cotoneaster by its finely serrated, oblong leaves.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), for which Hollywood was named, as rumor has it, due to its abundance in the southern California hills, is a member of the rose family. It is part of the coastal sage scrub community and also drought-adapted chaparral and mixed oak woodland habitats. Toyon typically grows to about 8 feet tall, although there are some much larger specimens that grow up to 30 feet.
Toyon can be seen blooming up and down the coast and foothills of California. It is native to California with a few plants wandering up into Oregon and down into Baja California. The name Toyon comes from the Ohlone people and is reportedly the only California native plant still commonly known by its Native American name.
Toyon foliage includes oblong shaped evergreen leaves with a serrated edge. In the spring and early summer, it produces small white flowers in dense bunches, with bright red berry-like fruit showing up in the fall and well into winter. On closer inspection, its berries resemble little apples. The name indicates this resemblance; "Hetero" means "different," and "meles" means "apples" (fruits like little apples). Similarly, Arbutifolia means having leaves like Arbutus unedo the Spanish ‘strawberry’ tree, closely related to our Madrone (Arbutus menziesii).
Toyon’s flowers are visited by butterflies and other insects, and are known to have a mild hawthorn-like scent. Many birds including mockingbirds, American robins, cedar waxwings, some finches, and sparrows love to eat its berries. Coyotes and bears eat them too. The berries are acidic and contain a small amount of cyanogenic glycosides, which will break down into hydrocyanic acid during digestion. This reportedly can be removed by cooking. The native Chumash, Tongva, and Tatavium people cooked the berries into porridge and pancakes and used the leaves to make tea as a stomach remedy.
In the garden, toyon is an easy drought resistant plant to grow and prefers either sun or part-shade. Toyon can grow in a wide variety of soils, including clay, sand, and serpentine, but needs more moisture than most chaparral shrubs. They make a great hedge plant and can be grouped with other natives such as coffeeberry (Frangula californica) for a mixed border of drought-resistant shrubs. Toyon is also great for erosion control and slope stabilization. And while it can grow fairly large, it tolerates shaping and pruning.
One more thing! Where can you view these plants locally? You can see toyon blooming now at the Presidio on the hillsides and trails above Fort Funston (where I saw them recently). Closer to home, there’s a planted stand of them located near the stairwell leading up to the Surge Lot on Medical Center Way (at UCSF), and other trails on Mt. Sutro, such as the Fairy Gates or North Ridge Trails. If you don’t take your eyes off the road too long, I understand you can see many laden with fruit this time of year while whizzing down Bay Area highways 101 or 280.
Toyon. Heteromeles arbutifolia. California Native Plant Society; http://www.calscape.org/Heteromeles-arbutifolia-(Toyon)?srchcr=sc57f037b8c0c3d
Native Plants: Toyon berries are favorite of many birds. Len Lindstrom III, Shasta Chapter, CNPS; June1, 2012. http://www.redding.com/lifestyle/native-plants-toyon-berries-are-favorite-of-many-birds-ep-375086857-354386311.html
What is Toyon: Learn About Toyon Plant Care and Information. Teo Spengler. http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/shrubs/toyon/toyon-plant-care.htm
Heteromeles arbutifolia. Plantspedia. http://plantspedia.wikia.com/wiki/Heteromeles_arbutifolia
Introduction to Chaparral: Toyon. Biological Sciences. Santa Barbara City College. http://www.biosbcc.net/b100plant/htm/toyon.htm
Toyon. The Living Wild Project. http://www.livingwild.org/winter/toyon/