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Heteromeles arbutifolia-Toyon, Christmas berry

Plant of the Month
November 2010

Heteromeles arbutifolia-Toyon, Christmas berry

Type: Evergreen shrub or small tree
Light: Likes full sun but can get by with light shade
Soil: Good draining but can take heavy soils too
Water: Once established, has low water needs

Here is one native so adored that I will almost fill this page with wonderful quotes singing its praises! Toyon, also called Christmas berry is an evergreen shrub and a member of the rose family. Toyon can grow in sun or partial shade, and are drought tolerant. Their natural habitat is chaparral and woodlands below 4000 feet and they seem fairly tolerant of most soils. 
This plant is another versatile performer growing 8-15 feet tall and almost as wide, can be trimmed to reduce its size if needed (although the production of its lovely berries can suffer from excessive pruning) or when mature can be trained as a lovely patio sized tree.

Nevin Smith, in his book Native Treasures, sings an ode to Toyons in the chapter "Toyon on my mind".

"In June and July each plant is decorated with many large, branched clusters of cream to white five-petaled flowers... followed by little green berries that expand throughout the summer and fall. As the nights cool, the berries begin to change color, finally taking on hues from crimson through vivid reds to an occasional orange or yellow. ...the berries...have proven so popular for Christmas decorations that local ordinances have been passed to forbid their collection on public lands."

Here's what the authors of California Native Plants for the Garden have to say:

"Toyon is the only California native plant that continues to be known by a Native American name. It retains the name given to it by the Oholone, who along with other California tribes use parts of this plant for food and medicines and implements. Toyon's resemblance to the European holly and its abundance in the hills of southern California were the genesis of the name 'Hollywood'.”

Ralph D. Cornell, supervising landscape architect for UCLA from 1937 to 1972 thought very highly of Toyon stating:

“Any plant that encourages bird life, supplies the bees with an unexcelled source of honey, gives food to man, furnishes tannin from its bark, protects arid slopes from erosion, paints the landscape with vivid colors and carries joy into the home at Christmas time, when no other berries are available to most Californians, surely deserves the protection of man, whom it serves so well.”

 I can add nothing to these three sources except, find a suitable place in your garden and plant one!

Note: "Davis Gold" is a great cultivar of the yellow berried form (Heteromeles arbutifolia var cerina) that almost glow in early morning or dusk. Also it has a more upright and symmetrical form that the straight species.