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Roger's Tree Pick for December: Toyon, the 'Christmas berry'


Last updated 12/8/2006 at Noon

December is the month when there is a vast array of fruiting berry plants of trees and shrubs that dot our landscape and the Toyon (commonly known as the “Christmas berry”) certainly is in that league.

Heteromeles arbutifolia is the botanical name and it is a California native widely distributed in the foothills and low mountains up to 4,000 feet in the central Nevada foothills Coast Ranges from Shasta to Humboldt County and south into San Diego County.

Toyon is noted to be a prominent component of the coastal sage scrub plant community. It inhabits open woodlands, canyons, varying slopes and, typically, chaparral regions. Within this wide range of habitats these plants will vary greatly in both size and growth structure, being low and dense in exposed places and becoming open, rangy and small tree-like when growing in wooded areas.

During years of abundant fruit crops, the bright berries enliven the native woodlands, providing one of California’s typical early winter-like scenes as they punctuate the native stands of flora on our hillsides.

Many native plants are almost constant companions, including species of Quercus (oak), rhus, rhamnus, ceanothus, cercis, arctostaphylos and wild salvias.

Toyon is in the Rosaceae family and sometimes you will find it listed under Photinia arbutifolia in some older literature.

It is usually a shrubby evergreen bush from 10 to 15 feet in height but I have seen these natives trained into lovely multi-trunked specimens to 20 feet-plus in time. Christmas berry, sometimes also called California holly, is great for wildlife in your garden when it comes into its berry cycle. I have a small family of quail living underneath a group of Toyons in my native garden.

The foliage is very leathery with serrated leaves and it will bloom with creamy-white blossoms during summer. The berries can remain intact throughout the winter on the plants if they’re not picked over by our fine feathered friends.

Toyon has a fairly shallow root system and likes very good soil drainage. It is heat-tolerant to some degree but does not like long, hard, cold frost. Toyon berries were used to make a tasty cider enjoyed by the early settlers.

The missionaries are reported to have made a pudding of the berries and our Native Americans cooked the berries by tossing them in baskets with hot pebbles or wood coals, which roasted them to a palatable stage.

A popular myth maintains that when early European immigrants came to California and settled in low foothills of the Santa Monica mountains of Los Angeles they mistook the Toyon for holly, and some say that was the beginning for Hollywoodland. Later, the “land” was dropped and just become “H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D.” Real estate lots in those days, both on the flats and in the surrounding hills, were selling from $150 to $400 each.

I did not know this story until I did a little investigation for this column, and since I was born at the Queen of Angeles hospital in Hollywood, Toyon has taken on a new special significance for me. Maybe I just might change my logo to the Hollywood Toyon-berry tree?

Toyon is really a drought-tolerant plant and can be incorporated into any Mediterranean-style landscape with a very natural look, for it blends so well with other xeriscape-type plantings. On rare occasions I have seen a yellow berry form of Toyon at native plant nurseries.

This past year I planted some five-gallon Toyon in a garden project, and after one season in the ground they have almost doubled in size under a drip form of irrigation. They were planted on a long, sloping, creek-like barranca where I also used other native plants such as oaks, sycamores, alders, redbud, ceanothus, Catalina ironwood, Torrey pines and willows. The objective of this combination was to reestablish a native stand of plants and create a wildlife habitat in this particular canyon corridor.

Some other winter berry-like plants to consider at this time of year:

• Nandina, which has shiny red terminal berries in clusters on top of the plant

• Callicarpa (also known as “Beautyberry”), which has tiny bright purple berries in clusters along the stems

• Iris foetidissima, which has orange berries in pendant seed pods

• Symphoricarpos (also known as “Snowberry”), which has waxy white berries found at the tip of weeping branches

• Clivia, which has red or yellow berries depending on the species or hybrids

• Cotoneaster, which, in many variations, gives abundant crops of berries throughout the winter season and the berries hold on to the plants for an extended time

• Arbutus unedo (also known as the “Strawberry tree”), a winter shrub to small tree that has red berries. Although the fruit tastes rather mealy, the red hanging berries on this plant are nature’s way of decorating the plant for the season.

• Arbutus menziesii, another California native, which has vibrant red fruits hanging in pendant clusters from its branches. Some of the berries might be green, yellow, orange and red all at the same time but in different stages of ripening.

Some of these ornamental berry-like plants can be used as a sub-planting or as under-story planting in a natural setting. So when we are thinking about the overall theme and feeling of a landscape design and the proper plant compatibility of assorted trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, groundcovers and/or bulbs, don’t forget to bring in another highlight of the garden: berries.

If you are a floral arranger and you are thinking about some holiday décor and want to create some berry spirit for your home with arrangements to bedazzle the eye, consider some of these ornamental berry selections to deck the halls in the spirit of the season.

Roger Boddaert, also known as the Tree Man of Fallbrook, is a certified International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Arborist. He may be contacted at (760) 728-4297.


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