All over Topanga Canyon and throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, toyon bushes are ablaze with red fruit. It’s a bumper year for this California native, which appears to be making up for time lost during the prolonged drought.
Toyon gets its name from the Ohlone word, “totcon,” making it a rare native plant that retains its native American name.
Because it fruits in midwinter, toyon is also known as Christmas berry and California holly. This is the “holly” that gives Hollywood its name, but it is not related to the European holly. Instead, toyon is a member of the rose family, and the only species in the genus Heteromeles.
Toyon grows all along the California coast and in the western Sierras. It was an important plant for Native Americans. In the Santa Monica Mountains the Chumash ate the fruit—tart and slightly bitter, and turned it into a drink said to taste like cider. They also used the wood for tools. While the fruit is edible, the leaves are not, and can be toxic if ingested.
This is one of the most abundant chaparral plants in the Santa Monica Mountains, but a craze for using the berries for holiday decorations took a major toll on the species. In Topanga Canyon, enterprising homesteaders jumped on the fashion for toyon berry decorations and harvested and sold toyon together with the oak firewood they carted out of the canyon and into town. There was so much demand for the berries that statewide protections were put in place in the 1920s to prevent it from being wiped out.
Toyon has rebounded, but it is still protected in the wild. This year’s abundant crop of berries is an important food source for a variety of native birds, including quail, cedar waxwings, Western bluebirds and robins. Coyotes and many smaller mammals also depend on the berries for a winter food source.
Anyone aspiring to decorate their mantelpiece in the old-time style should consider planting toyon in the garden, rather than harvesting it in the wild. Toyon is usually a medium-sized shrub but can grow to be a small tree. It rewards the gardener not only with vivid red berries but with an abundance of small lacy flowers in the spring that attract honeybees and native pollinators.
Toyon is a critically important food source for wildlife. This year, it’s a strikingly colorful holiday delight for canyon residents and visitors.