By Audrey F. Baker | Trail Guide
As fall gives way, culminating in winter solstice, we enter a new season. Earth’s shallowed angle to the sun brings short days, long nights and open night-time skies. It signals the holidays are upon us, marking the end of another year.
From ancient times to modern, nature has been an intimate part of the celebration. Eye-catching shows of icon plants steeped in California holiday tradition refresh us with bright hues of green color or berries reminiscent of springtime, enliven us with the promise of regeneration.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), a prominent component of the sage and chaparral, certainly meets this criteria. These beautiful and impressive plants range along much of the California coastline into Baja. They also populate foothills of the Sierra Nevada (Central California). Popularly known as Christmas Berry or California Holly, this member of the rosacea family produces voluminous clusters of brilliant red apple-shaped pomes (berries).
By the 1920s, Toyon’s popularity for use in wreathe-making and assorted holiday ornamentation imperiled its survival. The state of California intervened, imposing a full restriction against collection on public lands that remains in force. Today, of course, the tradition continues by using plastic versions. This variety is available to all.
For the Kumeyaay, Toyon is an important food and medicine. Eaten raw, its berries are pungent and bitter (ascetic) tasting. The unpleasantness is remedied by exposing them to the heat of the sun, improving palatability. Custom dictates that to allow proper ripening, noise be avoided. A pulp derived by pounding the leaves is used to wash sores and infected wounds. Pulverized bark also served the purpose.
Toyon berries are an important food resource for wildlife. Cedar waxwings, thrushes, California quails and others relinquish their feasting rites when coyotes come to claim theirs.
Another plant to focus on this holiday season is mistletoe. Our county boasts six species. Varieties are specific to the host plant and carry with them a long pedigree of human interaction.
The ancient Greeks are credited with starting the tradition of kissing under its mystical foliage. Celebrants attending Haloea, the winter solstice festival of Poseidon, associated the hemi-parasitic plant with fertility. Mistletoe’s genus name, Phoradendron, translated from Greek, means thief of the tree. It was also a headliner at the Roman winter solstice celebration, the Festival of Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn.
In ancient Britain, Celtic priests, druids, observing mistletoe as “the soul of the oak,” initiated the custom of hanging it over their door as protection against evil. For their solstice, they erected alters under impressive oaks, ceremoniously harvesting the sacred plant with golden sickles to brew a fertility potion and all-purpose antidote.
Its use in decorating houses has survived its pagan past. In 1820, American novelist Washington Irving wrote of mistletoe’s contribution to holiday festivities adding a caveat “to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”
By mid-19th century, mistletoe kisses got the official stamp of approval by Queen Victoria. She simply liked the customs of her German-born husband, Prince Albert. Now an ardent lover might steal a moment of intimacy with impunity. Still, rules applied. For each kiss, a berry was removed, and, as Washington Irving clarified, “when the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”
Locally, the Kumeyaay used the mistletoe associated with western sycamores as a hair dye. Fermented in standing water, it transforms into a deep-black liquid dye. In recognition of its toxic quality (Phoratoxin), they referred to it as “witches’ brooms.”
Mistletoe also supports animal diversity. Many bird species feed off the berries, including mourning doves, robins, and bluebirds. Phainopeplas almost exclusively depends on it for winter food. It also provides nesting for Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, and migratory species.
Holly-leafed cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), characterized by shiny, spined 1- to 2-inch toothy leaves, is another holiday favorite. For the Kumeyaay Indians, it has multiple applications and is a year-round resource. That’s another trail tale to be told.
We wish you a happy and sparkling holiday season and invite you to join us on a trail guide-led walk to explore the beauty, grandeur, variety and magic to be found in the natural world.
—Audrey F. Baker is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. Check the MTRP events calendar published here or at mtrp.org or call 619-668-3281 for more information on the park’s free trail guide-led nature walks and opportunities to learn more about natural Southern California. Special walks can be arranged for any club, group, business or school by contacting Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-2746 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.