For many, the joy of the holiday season is in the decorations. Whether you’re the one decorating or simply enjoying them, you can’t miss the appearance of this timely native herbal stunner. The brilliant red berries, or pomes, pop with color in contrast to its green leathery leaves.
Some mistake it for Holly (Ilex); it is not. Others may think it’s Pyracantha (Firethorn.) Wrong; no thorns. It goes by many names, like Christmas berry, or California Holly. Legend has it that the name, Hollywood, shortened from Hollywoodland, was so named because this bush profusely dots the slopes and hillsides of Los Angeles. It’s also widely evident in the California Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park, chaparral, oak woodlands, hill bottoms, and canyons.
You may have lived in California for years and just called it the red berry bush, but it’s “Toyon,” pronounced “Toyown.” The name is the Spanish transliteration of its original name “Tottcon,” named by the California Ohlone coastal tribe. It is the only native plant in California that still keeps its Native American name. It’s also the only species in the genus Heteromeles, family name Rosaceae.
Very subtly, Toyon starts producing tiny creamy white flowers with golden centers in summer. The flowers develop into small pale green berries before turning red in Fall. The raw green unripe berries contain a small amount of toxic, cyanide-forming compounds that could make you sick or kill you, depending on how many you eat. However, like birds and animals, humans instinctively know by the berries’ very bitter and astringent taste not to partake. As the berries ripen and sweeten, the cyanide-producing glycosides move into the seeds. So, don’t eat the seeds. The mature berries must be cooked or dried to remove the toxins completely. The berries ripen, turning a deep red. The toxins lessen and many birds, like Cedar Waxwing, Mockingbirds, and American Robins, consume them, spreading the seeds. You will find many Toyon up and down the coast, and inland in California. Many are also found on Catalina Island (Toyon Bay.)
Many different Californian tribes used Toyon for food and medicine. Toyon is edible if prepared correctly. Dried, it is used as a tea for stomach aches, menstrual cramps, or made into jelly. Settlers later ground the berries, added sugar, and made custard and wine. Berries were only eaten or stored raw after sun drying or roasting to improve their taste. Porridge, flours, and pancakes were also prepared. Other tribes created an infusion of Toyon leaves and bark to wash infected wounds and sores. However prepared, Toyon’s astringent quality is very valuable to the body, as the berry creates added saliva in the mouth.
Toyon is an amazing plant. No soil amendments are ever needed. Its web-like root system makes it an excellent choice for erosion control. It’s drought resistant, heat tolerant, a pollinator attractor, food source, and habitat for many animals, insects, and birds. Fire can’t destroy its natural ability to regenerate quickly.
Oh, and don’t clip someone else's branches or berries for in-house holiday decor. California penal code 384a makes it illegal. Others may have their Winter Wonderland, but like clockwork, nature decorates California with its own native, stunning herbal holiday tree! Enjoy the sights. . .

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