If you have been out walking in oak or mixed evergreen woodlands this fall, you may have noticed this multi-stemmed evergreen shrub with a resplendent display of red berries and dark green leathery leaves. Although it could be mistaken for Pyracantha, or even English Holly, Toyon is our native California version of Christmas berry. In the Felton Discovery Park, Toyon shrubs have just recently been planted near the sundial. We look forward to many years of their bright berries and summer blooms.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is found throughout western California and the Sierra Foothills. It typically grows 6-8 feet tall but can easily reach 15 feet tall in the right circumstances. One of the tallest Toyon, found in Santa Barbara County, is 32 feet tall.
During the 1920s, in Los Angeles County, branches of Toyon were so heavily harvested during the Christmas season that the practice was forbidden throughout the state on public lands. It is rumored that Hollywood was named for its many beautiful Toyon bushes. In 2012, the plant became the official native plant of the city of Los Angeles.
The small 5 petaled white flowers appear in summer and are attractive to butterflies and other pollinating insects, making this plant an excellent choice for a pollinator garden. The berries that appear at this time of year are food for many birds including cedar wax wings, robins and mockingbirds. They are also consumed by mammals such as coyotes and black bears. Native Americans ate the berries raw, fermented, and cooked. The raw berries may contain a small amount of cyanogenic glycosides and are acidic and astringent.
Toyon is often used in landscaping as a hedge or screen. It can be grown near houses as it is somewhat fire retardant. Toyon is easy to grow and is drought tolerant. It can also tolerate a fair amount of watering during the summer (1x/week) and grows well near seasonal creeks, seeps or irrigated areas. Toyon tolerates a variety of soils, including clay, sand, and serpentine. It grows well in full sun or part shade. It will produce more berries in a sunny spot. In our area, near the coast, Toyon prefers locations with good airflow, otherwise it can develop problems with leaf fungus and bacteria. If you will be planting a Toyon, it may need some protection for its first 3-4 years of growth as deer may eat the new growth but not the older leaves. The few young shrubs that I have growing near my house have been nibbled on by deer but they have tolerated this by growing back with more stems.
Stuart, J.D., J.O. Sawyer. 2001. California Natural History Guides: Trees and Shrubs of California. University of California Press. Berkeley
Bernstein, C., D. Fross, B. O’Brien. 2005. California Native Plants for the Garden. Cachuma Press. Los Olivos