Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is also commonly know as Christmas berry and California holly, with reason. This native evergreen shrub has clusters of red, berry-like fruits (pomes) that persist into the winter. Although California passed a law prohibiting collection of its holly-like branches on public lands, toyon gathered from private property continues to be used as a Holiday decoration.
An erect shrub or small tree 6 to 10 feet in height, toyon is found in the lower rocky mountain slopes, canyon bottoms and foothills of coastal California, Baja and extreme Southern Oregon. Toyon was so common in the hills above Los Angeles that Hollywood took its name from this plant.
Toyon leaves are oblong or elliptical and leathery with short petioles. Glossy dark green on the upper side, the leaves are lighter on the underside. Leaf margins are toothed with pointed bristles. The small white flowers bloom in early summer.
Following a fire, toyon sprouts vigorously.
Native Americans, Spanish Californians and early settlers rarely ate the astringent and bitter berries raw, but would parch or boil the fruits before eating them, which removed the bitter taste. A “cider” or jelly can also be prepared using toyon berries. A tea prepared from the bark is reputed to ease stomachache. Toyon contains small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides. Even though toxicity is reduced with cooking, care must be taken when utilizing this plant for medicinal or culinary purposes.
Birds feed extensively on toyon fruits while butterflies frequent the flowers. Although deer will browse on toyon, it is not considered good livestock feed.
The pictured toyon was growing west of where the Trinity River joins the Klamath River in Coastal California.