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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Dec 4, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugToyon is a well-known chaparral bush that gets special attention around the holidays because it has beautiful red and orange berries.

It is also known under different names such as “Christmas berry” or “California holly” and “Hollywood.” The story goes that because this species is so abundant in the hills around Los Angeles, Hollywood got its name from this plant. I take this story with a grain of salt, as I’ve heard the same claim about the holly-leaved cherry (Prunus ilicifolia).

What we know for sure is that the name “toyon” was given by the Ohlone tribe of the Bay Area, and that it is the only plant in California still known under its Native American name. Many places have kept their Native American names, but it does not seem the same privilege was often accorded to plants.

In doing research for this article, I discovered all kinds of interesting facts. I’ll bet you had no idea the toyon is the official native plant of the city of Los Angeles? That was recently decided by the L.A. City Council (April 17, 2012).

Let’s face it: The toyon is a large bush, popular when the holidays are near, because people want to decorate their houses with its branches. It is much more forgiving than European holly with its sharp spiky leaves; plus holly does not grow easily in California, while toyon is plentiful. In 1920, collecting it became so popular that a law was passed forbidding the collecting of toyon on public land or on someone else’s property without the owner’s permission (Calif. Penal Code 384a).

toyon1I have used the word “berries,” but they are actually called “pommes.” This is why people want to cut the branches covered with the red and orange pommes to decorate their homes for the holidays. The pommes are small: 5 to 10 mm across; they mature in the fall and stay on the branch for part of the winter – in theory. In practice and real life, birds descend on the toyon and gobble up all of the berries as soon as they are ripe. They are loved by robins, mockingbirds, finches and sparrows, but if a flock of cedar waxwings discovers a toyon plant, they will stay two or three days until all is consumed. Cedar waxwings then act like a bunch of crazy first-graders high on sugar, flying in all directions.

I have one toyon bush in my backyard, and I have the great pleasure to observe this erratic behavior year after year. Twenty birds pile up in the bird bath to fly again to the tree, full-speed and pell-mell. I have often wondered if this collective hysteria came from the abundance of food. After two days the tree is cleaned of every pomme, and the birds move on to a new place to decimate.

The pommes are toxic when eaten raw, but a small amount of cooking breaks down the cyanogenic glucosides. Most of the toxicity is in the pulp of the immature fruit. As the pommes ripen, the toxicity goes mostly into the seed, and the sugar level in the pulp increases when the fruit is ripe.

toyon6Toyon was used by Native American tribes including the Chumash, Tongva and Tataviam to make jelly, but most of the time it was dried up as a paste (like a fruit jerky) and stored to be added later to porridge or pancakes.

The leaves have medicinal value and were used to make a tea for stomach problems. Later on, settlers added sugar and used the pommes to make cider, sauce (such as cranberry sauce), custard and even wine.

Toyon grows well in California and is found mostly here. Some specimens are found in the extreme southwestern part of Oregon as well as Baja California. It is not found in the desert and does not grow at altitudes above 4,000 feet. It is a typical plant of the drought-adapted chaparral, mixed oak woodland and foothills area.

It is evergreen and drought-resistant, so it is a good plant for a sunny location or partially shaded area in your garden. It is fast-growing. The leaves are oblong, 2 to 4 inches long, and in the spring it is covered with flat-topped clusters of white flowers that are visited by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Toyon is from the rose family, and it is not a fire hazard like so many other plants from the chaparral. It grows to about 15 feet; the foliage is glossy, dark green and pretty the whole year long.

I know we all want a lot of rain this winter, but if you’ve had some dying trees or bushes on your property, think about planting some toyon. You will be rewarded by more wildlife visiting and a lower water bill.

 

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Cathy says:

    I have one these mature Toyon bushes in my yard too. The description of migrating birds you spoke of made me laugh. The birds descend on our Toyon like they are on speed. Last year there were “bird fights” over the pommes. I would never think of using the branches to decorate the inside of my house. There is so little native food for these migrating birds, it would be selfish of me to take their food source away.

    • Evelyne Vandersande says:

      I am happy you enjoy your Toyon Cathy and I agree with you, I do not use them to decorate my house either. It is better to leave them outside, they get used by
      the birds as it is supposed to be. Thanks for your comment and enjoy the Holidays and the birds.

  2. Arvind says:

    A few years back, a letter in Pacific Horticulture written by an LA area landscape professional recorded the number of rings in a mature toyon that after it died: 450 rings, one for each year of its life. Incidentally, it died after the owner insisted on surrounding it with a moist lawn. Who knows how long it would have lived had the owner listened to the landscaper’s advice.

    • SCVNews.com says:

      That’s interesting because there is not usually a direct correlation between tree rings and number of years. Several rings can form in a year depending on conditions – especially in times of drought, and especially in bush-like trees.

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