Although the summer clusters of small white flowers are attractive, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is best known for its bright red berries, which are conspicuous from November through the winter – or until they are devoured by wildlife. The berries give rise to the alternate names: Christmas berry and California holly.
Other Common Names:
Christmas berry, California holly
Toyon is a large, native, evergreen shrub or small tree, usually less than 20 feet (6 m) tall.
The leaves are 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) long, approximately oval with small teeth. Mature leaves are thick and leathery with a waxy coat. New growth is often bronze in color.
The quarter-inch (6 mm) berries ripen to bright red in the fall; in cross-section, berries resemble tiny apples. They are prized by wildlife and often disappear rapidly.
Toyon is found throughout California below 4000 feet (1200 m), but only slightly beyond the state boundary. It is a frequent component of chaparral, often in canyons and north facing slopes. It is also found in coastal sage scrub.
In the Reserve, toyon is widely distributed in both sage scrub and chaparral. A mature specimen grows at the west end of the Nature Center parking lot.
Toyon is a dicot angiosperm in the rose family, the Rosaceae. This is a variable family.44 Plants generally have bisexual flowers that are radially symmetrical with five petals and five to numerous, spirally arranged stamens.
The rose family includes many commercial plants including fruits (including plums, peaches, apples, and strawberries) and ornamentals (such as roses and pyracantha).Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
Toyon is drought-adapted with thick, waxy leaves that reduce transpiration and allow it to stay green all year, although growth slows during summer and fall.5
Toyon has a strong and much-branched root system that is deep and wide spreading,5 an adaptation for capturing the limited amount of moisture.
Toyon berries were eaten by native Americans, but accounts of palatability vary from “sweet and spicy”3 to “bitter and used for food only when … starving”.9 Berries were usually roasted or boiled to remove the bitter taste; sometimes they were dried for future cooking.
Early settlers cooked berries into pies and custards and fermented them into a cider.27 (We now know that cooking and fermentation deactivate the cyanic compound in berries and leaves.)
NOTE: Both leaves and immature fruits contain a cyanide compound that can cause sickness and death; in mature fruits, the toxin is concentrated in the seed, not the pulp.39
There are at least 2 versions of the derivation of the name “toyon”:
1) it is derived from the name used by the Ohlone (a native American tribe of central California);16, 24
2) it is derived from an old Spanish word for canyon, a preferred toyon habitat.27
The bright red berries at Christmas time give toyon its other common names: Christmas berry and California holly. Some think the large stands of toyon in the hills behind Hollywood gave that town its name.5,24,27