Heteromeles arbutifolia fruit, in the form of red berries!
Who doesn’t love red berries? Red berries for Christmas! How classic can it get!?
It can’t get more classic. Welcome back to another installation of our horticultural series about excellent landscape plants with fiery red winter berries. This week we will take a look at the Cadillac of California native shrubs- Heteromeles arbutifolia (how’s that for a mouthful?) – also known as Toyon!
A young toyon shrub
Prized for its white flower clusters in fall, gorgeous red berry bundles in winter, and year-round awesomeness as a California ecological treat, toyon is your new best friend.
Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon) basics:
- Common names: Toyon, California holly, Christmas berry
- Perennial woody shrub/small tree
- 6 – 10 ft tall, 10 – 15 ft wide, however there are some specimens that have grown as high as 30 ft
- Growth habit (plant form): rounded or vase
- Moderate growth rate
- The flowers have a slight fragrance
- Flowers: showy white flowers in dense bunches. They attract butterflies and other pollinators
- Blooming season: summer and fall
- Fruit: large quantities of small, bright red berries maturing in fall and persisting through winter. Birds love eating them, and even coyotes and bears are known to consume the berries.
Mrs. cedar waxwing does not want to share those toyon berries with you. You just keep walkin’… or reading, rather
Native Area and Horticultural History
Toyon is a prominent plant in the coastal sage shrub, chaparral, and oak woodland habitats. Impressive credentials. It is a native of California and Baja California, with a natural range extending along the Coastal and Peninsular Ranges from southwest Oregon (rarely) to northwest Baja California. They can also be found, naturally, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of the northern Central Valley. This beauty is a true Californian.
The native range of Heteromeles arbutifolia
They tend to grow well near seasonal creeks and the bottom of slopes and canyons, along with north facing slopes, and where water seeps through porous material (such as granite faces). They are also often found growing well near irrigated areas.
Toyon in the California savanna. Come on, such beauty. This landscape is the wink in God’s eye.
Although there are chemical compounds in the berries that make them toxic in large quantities, and bitter, they can be eaten raw. When cooked, the bitter taste is removed. Toyon berries were commonly eaten by native peoples, and I’ve read that when cooked they have a slight cherry-like taste.
Sprigs of toyon, aka Christmas berry, were once widely used in Southern California as holiday season substitutes for the Anglo traditional English holly. Laws were passed, and still in effect, prohibiting the collection of wild toyon branches, because people overenthusiastic.
An old timey, rather well drawn, image of toyon used by old timey toyon sprig hunters. Shame on them, but kudos to the artist.
Toyon is growing in popularity in the cultivated gardens of California. Their relative ease of growth and maintenance, low water needs, and their profoundly beneficial ecological impact for our region makes them a wise choice to plant in the landscape. We all want to be wise, right?
Older toyon specimens have a smooth light to dark grey bark that is visually satisfying and pleasant to the touch. If you see one of these specimens, grab onto a thick branch to remind yourself that humans have evolved, literally, to touch trees.
Toyon leaves are leathery and highly toothed
Toyon leaves are also rather satisfying. Sharply toothed and oblong in shape, they look like they could cut through steak, however they are peace lovers, and gentle yet strong (leathery) to feel. Their alternate growth pattern gives leaf groupings on the branch a star-like silhouette (sometimes).
Toyon’s branching habit is often rounded and sometimes vase-like in shape.
Red Berries for a Beautiful Landscape
Toyon makes an excellent plant in the park, by your house, on a hill, holding together that soil from the big spill, in any landscape, even if it’s kinda dark [they can handle shade].
Like the other plants in this series, birds and people alike will flock to these bountiful bundles of richly color rounded red berries.
As mentioned above, they are edible, however you will probably want to cook them first. They can be mashed up and put in water (perhaps some sweetener too) to make a refreshing beverage on those sometimes surprisingly balmy winter days. Just don’t steal the berries while on your hike. Instead, have a Christmas berry shrub or two planted in your landscape, and enjoy the berries of our labor.
Toyon has many uses in the landscape. Their branching structure makes them beautiful specimen plants, potentially growing into a small tree (small enough to fit well under utility lines), but they also make great screening shrubs, planted as a hedge row, creating privacy. They can also be used for soil and slope stabilization.
The rounded shrub form of toyon
They are easy to grow, and sometimes, if the conditions are right, they can grow up to ten feet in three years. The showy white flowers and, of course, gorgeous red berries, make for particular interest in the landscape setting. If you have the room for their large shrub size, Toyon is one of the best plants you can have in the Southern California landscape. They often grow well near coast live oak trees, making a beneficial understory shrub.
- Full sun to part shade – they tend to do better with part shade in Southern California
- Once established (after a year or so after planting) they often do not need supplemental water, however they tend to do better with occasional supplemental water – summer water can be up to 2x per month
- Susceptible to fireblight, which is a bacterial infection that can affect the growth in spring. It can spread fairly readily between plants. Signs of fireblight include wilting, browning, and blackening of growth, which can make the plant appear to have been burned, hence the name. Infected areas should be removed and destroyed. There are also antibiotics available.
- Toyon can do well in a variety of soils, and tends to want more moisture than many chaparral shrubs. They tend to prefer well draining soil, however they can often tolerate even slow draining soil. PH 5 – 8 (which is a relatively wide range)
- Excellent specimen or hedge plants – showy white flowers and red berries are fan favorites during the cooler months, and the leaf shape and branching structure keep the visual enjoyment going during the off season
- Flowers attract local pollinators including beautiful butterflies, and the berries attract birds
- USDA Hardiness zone (ability to survive cold temperatures and frost): 9 – 11 (much of Los Angeles is 10). Often cold hardy to -5 degrees F
- Fertilizer is not necessary
- For propagation – fresh seeds without any treatment
Generally, toyon is best left alone to grow naturally into its healthy branching habit. If it must be pruned, prune carefully to next lateral branch. Repeated heavy pruning will weaken the plant, making it prone to disease.
Some studies have suggested that healthy toyon plants, with their leathery leaves, are less flammable than other native plants.
What’s in a Name?
It’s one thing to be a big name in Hollywood, but how about Hollywood being named after you? That’s right, Hollywood is named after this plant, which can still be found growing in the hills above the urban sprawl.
The genus name, Heteromeles (toyon is the only known species in this genus), is the combination of two old Greek words: ‘hetero,’ meaning ‘different,’ and ‘malus,’ meaning ‘apple.’ This is the same ‘hetero’ meaning that we find in ‘heterosexual.’ And the red berries of the Heteromeles do somewhat resemble tiny red apples. They are pretty cute, really.
Little apples, right? Super cute.
The name, ‘arbutifolia’ could be the butt of many jokes. And I just made one. Goodnight, everyone.
But really, ‘arbutifolia’ is the species name meaning, ‘with leaves like the arbutus.’ What does that mean, you ask? Arbutus is a genus of trees, including the ever-popular Arbutus unedo, aka the strawberry tree (it has edible, very gritty fruit, but they’re not the strawberries you know and love – that’s a different plant). Let’s take a visual comparison of the leaves of Heteromeles arbutifolia (this post’s hero) and the Arbutus unedo (johnny come lately) to see if this naming scheme is appropriate:
Heteromeles arbutifolia leaves (and fruit)
Arbutus unedo leaves (and fruit)
Well, there you have it. Yes, they do look alike. Well played botanists. Well played.
Thank you for joining us again on our weekly journey through the world of horticulture. Come back next week for our second installment in this series on common Southern California plants that have bountiful beautiful red winter berries! And as always, contact us to learn more about what plants, and landscape features, are right for your property!
DO YOU have Heteromeles arbutifolia, or any other locally common plant in your landscape? We want to see them! Please send us a picture and we will happily feature it in a blog article! We do love our California plants, but we don’t discriminate! All are welcome! Send those beauties to [email protected], thank you.
Thank you for joining us again in this week’s horticultural adventures. Please come back next Wednesday for out next blog post, and as always, contact us for all your landscape needs!
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape
Theodore Payne Nursery – Specializing in local native plants for our region.
Armstrong (La Canada) – Offering a range of natives and climate appropriate plants, along with more water intensive classics.