By NORA BODRIAN
The perennial toyons are in full display this year: bright red berries decorated our trails for the holidays.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) grows 10- to 15-feet high as a shrub or small tree and is found only in the chaparral, coastal sage scrub and oak woodlands of California and Baja California. The beautiful white flowers of spring transition to bright red berries from November to January. The leaves are elliptical and evergreen with serrated edges.
Due to these characteristics, it is also known as Christmas berry or California holly. Since there is nothing else “Christmas-y” in California, these festive branches were historically picked by early Californian settlers for holiday wreaths and decorations, until the 1920s when the state of California outlawed their harvest on public lands. Like many fire-resistant shrubs in our fire-prone state, the toyon is a crown-sprouter and will regenerate its shoot system after a fire.
Toyon is a member of the family Rosaceae, like pears, apricots, plums and apples. Botanically speaking, this means that the berries are not true berries, but rather miniature pomes, like pears and apples.
The seeds contain dangerous levels of a poisonous cyanide-forming compound. Animals will not eat unripe berries because they are so bitter and toxic, however once they have ripened into the attractive red color, animals can eat them and not be harmed. It is very common to find reddish coyote scat on the trails with digested berries.
Native Californians used toyon for food, medicine and tools. Toasted or boiled to remove the bitterness and toxicity, ripe pomes were a good source of food during the winter. The fruit can also be dried and saved for several months and cooked later into porridge or pancakes. The Kumeyaay pound the toyon bark and leaves to make an infusion to treat wounds, stomach ailments and women’s conditions. Branches can be used to make bows and hair pins.
Toyon is a great shrub for your xeriscape yard, as it is drought tolerant, evergreen, low maintenance and attracts many backyard birds. As the shrub can grow into a fairly large tree, one might trim it back after the berries have ripened. You know that the berries have ripened in your yard when they all disappear because the mockingbirds, finches and sparrows have eaten them all!
— Nora Bodrian is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.