Toyon, in the rose family, carries a name given to it by Native Americans and produces fruit related to apples. Because it ripens and turns bright red around the holidays, its common names are Christmas berry and California Holly.
Toyon’s scientific name, Heteromeles arbutifolia, means “different apple.”
There’s debate surrounding the plant’s association with the naming of Hollywood. [See link in resources.]
A California native, Toyon is an evergreen shrub. It grows from sea level to scrub oak zones up to 4,000 ft. elevation; it’s drought tolerant and accepts a variety of soil types— including clay.
Specially adapted to flourish after fire, Toyon root crowns store carbohydrates allowing the plant to quickly send up new sprouts.
Established shrubs, reaching 8 to 10 feet in height, have lower water requirements than young plants.
Small white flower bunches appear in June and July.
While fruit is developing, berries contain a cyanogenic glucoside, a toxic substance, that protects them from being eaten.
As the fruit ripens, turning red, the cyanogenic glucoside moves from the pulp into the seeds.
Birds and some mammals, such as coyote and bear, eat Toyon berries in the fall.
For humans, the taste of fresh berries is bitter. It’s a good idea to spit out the seeds.
Heating berries before eating removes some of the bitterness.
HISTORIC HUMAN FRUIT CONSUMPTION
- Bark and leaf tea for stomach problems and wound infections – Kumeyaay people and other Native Tribes
- Leaf infusions – menstruation regulation – Costanoan people
- Sun parching – Luiseno people (southern California)
- Thirst quencher – Mahuna people
- Wine, custard, jelly, and porridge – Spanish and American settlers
MOLD & INSECT INFESTATION
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*This article is dedicated to Rose Sponder, who identified the plant on Instagram.
Fermented Toyon Beverage
Bear Yuba Land Trust – Toyon (recipes)
Biological Sciences – Santa Barbara City College
Briar Patch Coop – Wild Winter Spices and Add Local Flair to Holiday Cooking
California Native Plant Society Blog – Holiday Native Plant Recipes 12/11/17
California Native Plant Society – Redbud Chapter – Natives for Landscaping
Calscape – Toyon
EthnoHerbalist – Native Americans in southern California enjoyed berries from the toyon plant
KCET – Deck The Hills with Boughs of (California) Holly
Living Wild (recipes) – Toyon
Natural History Museum Los Angeles County – California Holly: How Hollywood Didn’t Get its Name
SFGate – How to Care for A Toyon Tree