There’s an important plant showing off right now. Cast your eyes across our hillsides or hike deep in the ravines, and you may catch a glimpse of large multi-trunked treelike shrubs festooned with bright white blossoms. In December, these plants will be weighted with bright red berries, just in time for the holidays. Branches with berries were so popular as wild gleaned holiday décor that Californians had to pass laws to prohibit harvesting in the early 1900’s. This big shrub or at times small tree is called “toyon,” Hollywood, or Christmas berry.
Madrone-like Different Apple
The plant’s genus name “Heteromeles” means ‘different apple’ (“hetero” translates as ‘different’ and “meles” references the apple genus ‘Malus’), which makes sense because this super shrub is related to apples, which are also in the rose family. You can see why it is a rose relative if you examine the small flowers and find that they are five-petaled, like wild roses. I captured a photo of a honeybee visiting Toyon flowers (note the attractive red leaves in the background). Like roses (and apples!) the flowers have an alluring scent…some say like Hawthorn – but, does anyone know how to describe hawthorn smell?? Oh, so much to learn…in Nature, there’s always more to learn.
More plant name etymology…as we already covered the secrets behind the genus name. Botanists often play most playfully with “plant nomenclature.” As a profession, they might be the punniest. This shrub-tree’s species name is “arbutifolia” referring to the shape of the leaves, which are like leaves in the genus Arbutus, which includes our native madrones. I recognize that the overall leaf shape fits and that the leaves are extremely waxy like madrone leaves. But, Toyon leaves are a darker green and have little teeth on their margins, unlike madrones. Nevertheless, if you cut branches of this plant for the holidays, you’ll get both a dark green ‘holly-like’ leaf color as well as the bright red distinctly holly-like berries- a fine combination.
Do We Eat Them?
Yes, we do eat them. The original people of this land made delicious food out of Toyon berries. The name Toyon is a Spanish-era mispronunciation of the native peoples’ name “totcon.” There is a problem, though…when ripe, the seeds are full of cyanide, so one must process the berries to get rid of that poison. I don’t know anyone who has done that work, and I leave the berries for the birds.
What Else Do We Do with Toyon?
Toyon wood is epically useful but little known these days. Know anyone with a toyon wood anything? Native peoples used the wood for poles, arrows, bows, pegs, pestles, frames for furniture, bowls, etc.
Nowadays we use the plant in restoration and habitat management. The birds, pollinators, and mammals like it a lot- a prime candidate for restoration in many ecosystems.
Wildlife worship at the Toyon many times a year. Now, when the shrubtrees are in bloom, they vibrate with pollinator noises in all octaves. Being one of the only early summer abundant sources of pollen and nectar, Toyon is the go-to nectar bar for a wide variety of buzzing floral resource collectors. The distinct drone of European honeybees emanates from the flowering canopy, joined by the high whine of numerous flies and the deeper tones of larger native bees. And then there are fruit…
The fruit take a long time to mature, a long wait until berries are ripe and delicious, but as with the good fortune of early summer flowers, the fruit arrives at a time when few other such foods are available. One of my favorite wintertime visitors, flocks of noisy cedar waxwings descend on a toyon and feast joyously on the berries. The amazing photo above is copyright by Creative Commons and is by Flickr user Becky Matsubara. Robins, too, regular fruit eaters, gulp them down. I’m not sure how coyotes reach the Toyon fruit around here, often too high to reach. If there were bears still around, they would feast on Toyon berries, probably tearing off limbs that bore berries too high for their reach. All of these critters disperse Toyon seeds with their poop. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a waxwing-dispersed toyon sprouting up in your home’s vicinity…or, if an open space near you doesn’t sport crowns of Hollywood stars…there’s always a chance to plant them!
Landscaping with Toyon
Toyon is a great landscape and restoration plant when you want a large, resilient, and wildlife friendly shrub. The species isn’t the fastest growing, but it is quick enough! After 10 years, you can count on a 12’ tall, 10’ diameter plant with a full round crown chock full of flowers. What you can’t count on is a full canopy of leaves…or red berries…it seems that those only occur on the driest of sites – mine get mildewy leaves that fall off readily and the berries turn moldy black in many years. The flowers, though, consistently appear in larger and larger bee-covered masses. Count on multiple trunks with smooth grayish bark that are easily pruned up to be more fire safe. If there is a fire, you can count on Toyon to bound back with new sprouts so perhaps once established a shrub can live a very long time. Another bonus- although Toyon is ostensibly evergreen, it does shed its leaves a few at a time…and as those leaves get ready to shed they turn a bright and beautiful red.
I took this photo of a 10 year old toyon just today, high above Davenport- in bloom and very lush looking.
Your homework, should you decide to take my advice, is to spot the Toyon. There really aren’t that many trees or near tree shrubs to learn in our area, and this one is a great one to add to your repertoire of local knowledge. Where will you go to find this species???
-This post originally posted by Bruce Bratton in his weekly blog BrattonOnline.com