Tag Archives: Heteromeles arbutifolia

Toyon, California Holly

This sturdy evergreen shrub native to California, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is also known as the Christmas Berry or California Holly. Here’s why:

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There’s an old urban legend that early European settlers in Los Angeles, where this holly lookalike grew especially abundant, named their new home in its honor.
Hollywoodland. Ultimately shortened to Hollywood.

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At a neighbor’s holiday party over the weekend, I discovered it in full-on berriment growing on the west side of their bungalow.
Of course, today I just had to beg for a few sprigs of berries to bring home.
(As far as I can tell, I’ve now coined that word “berriment,” and it just might stand as my lasting contribution to humankind.)
The foamy mass in the background is a native buckwheat, but not, because I asked, the giant St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum).

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Irresistible impulses, like mine, to bring indoors the toyon’s bright red berries began to threaten its very existence until a law was passed in the 1920s prohibiting picking the berries in the wild.
A ban local birds wildly celebrated. There’s a complicated bit of science and tanins and whatnot involved in the question of toxicity to humans, but the short, safe version is don’t.
Just don’t eat the fresh berries. Notwithstanding the fact that local Indians did all manner of clever things with the flowers, berries and bark, for food and medicine.
Usual size is 8 to 15 feet, but it can and does grow bigger. My neighbor’s toyon is trained as a small tree, but it can also be grown as a hedge.
Easy and forgiving, sun or even part shade, tolerant of regular irrigation or, once established, summer drought.

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Other plants in the vase are sprigs of lemon cypress and olive from our garden, very familiar to Evie, but the toyon from just a dozen houses away might as well have been from another country.
Evie immediately leapt onto the table to investigate. Bears and coyotes are known to eat the berries, but I have no idea what the digestive tract of Felis catus would make of them.

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Evie never sampled, but did make a thorough, full-vase investigation.

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I filled a couple urns for the mantle too, mostly with lemon cypress and olive branches, with just a few sprigs of toyon berries, which manage to communicate holiday merriment even in very small quantities.

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Toyon became the official native plant of Los Angeles on April 17, 2012.

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For berries of your own to bring indoors during the winter holidays as much as you please, toyon is carried in local nurseries, usually at fall planting time.
Los Pilitas Nursery is also a source, as well as the Theodore Payne Nursery and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nurseries.
Any of the above resources will patiently and knowledgeably explain how toyon can be an essential evergreen in your summer-dry garden.


Walk the Walk

Long Beach Water Department is leading by example to gently ease citizens out of the mindset that wants to seed or unroll mowable turf grass as the default landscape. Who else is better positioned to educate the public on alternative landscapes for those expansive lawns that just won’t cut it anymore on Southern California’s average rainfall of 15 inches a year? At their own offices, this is exactly what they’ve done. Nothing fancy, no prohibitively expensive hardscape to dash low-budget hopes, just old-fashioned, solid plantsmanship.

During some errands yesterday, I stopped by their offices on 1800 E. Wardlow in Long Beach, which are tucked quite a ways back from the road.
If it wasn’t for this Agave vilmoriniana waving at me, I might have driven right on by.

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Thyme interplanted among pavers and possibly a yellow gazania. Unlike thyme, Dymondia magaretae tolerates foot traffic. Here bordered by grasses and gaura.

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Dendromecon rigida with the beach aster, Erigeron glaucus, in the background, a line of newly planted dudleyas barely visible to the left.
Decomposed granite paths weave among the plantings.

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C’mon, men. Don’t mow your landscape, play with it. Drop the mower, put on a loincloth and build a cairn. You know you’ve always wanted to, but cairns just look silly on lawns and need to be surrounded by something windswept. Now grab a Guinness and admire your handiwork.

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In the first photo above, grasses are a blue fescue and Stipa tenuissima, the latter getting the haircut treatment my husband gives ours in the parkway. Many Southern California designers are no longer utilizing this potentially invasive stipa, but you have to give it credit for its role as a gateway grass, building further interest in bunch grasses. As far as I can tell, it is universally beloved by all who see and touch it.

Second photo above: Ocotillo, Fonquieria splendens underplanted with Sedum rubrotinctum (‘Pork and Beans’) and Graptopetalum paraguayense (‘Ghost Plant’).

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The plantings were a mix of natives and exotics, including the Chilean Calandrinia grandiflora, magenta flowers in the above photo, as well as the New Zealand sedge, Carex testacea not pictured. Some native plants that were not photographed included toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia (fronted by a big planting of Lobelia laxiflora), Salvia clevelandii, Salvia spathacea, Agaves shawii and deserti.