Propagating Toyon

Megan Williams’ property hosts a grove of old-growth toyon that only needs the birds to
propagate it. Photo by Megan Williams

Suzanne Guldimann’s wonderful article about toyon (Toyon Decorates the Canyon with Festive Red Berries, December 13, 2019) caught my attention. Two years ago, after repeatedly trying to grow toyon from seed, I learned from the master, Tom Hayduk, formerly of the Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT), who taught me what to do.

I’ve always admired this remarkable plant and the survival fruit it provides during wintertime. I would watch migrating birds from my window, gorging themselves on the berries from old-growth plants on our property. When Hayduk explained the process, I went into overdrive, producing about a hundred plants for the MRT (now part of TreePeople). It’s not as simple as tossing the berries into the soil. Hayduk first made sure of the source of my seeds, which came from private property and not taken from protected land.

Toyon contains some volatile chemicals, as some wild plants have such defenses. First, I soaked the berries for over a week. Then, using exacto blades, I found the two tiny seeds contained in each berry. My fingers turned black handling the hydrocyanic acid, but it wasn’t a problem and washed off easily.

Many people turn the berries to pulp, but I avoided this technique. I then put the seeds into sealed ziplock bags with soft soil and laid them on the cold floor of our garage. After about a month, I removed the bags and set them in a warm location. Sprouts galore! After they grew a bit, I showed Hayduk the progress. He seemed pleased and we laid the seedlings into flats. Once this plant is growing it is extremely hardy. I love to think that those plants are now planted around the Santa Monica Mountains or in restoration areas.

Toyon is remarkable because it grows in the harshest chaparral and the coolest oak forest. It is a fine companion for the magnificent coast live oaks. I love that it is still referred to by its native Ohlone and Tongva name. It was an important source of vitamin C, a survival fruit for native Californians, often added to high-protein oak acorn meal. 

Finally, after all of the work and trouble of propagating my favorite native plant, I noticed an area on our property underneath a large oak tree where the birds had taken care of all of that seed digestion. Hordes of small toyon were attempting to grow. Some survived and some didn’t but nature’s way is likely the best.

Thank you, Suzanne Guldimann, for reminding us to leave this beautiful plant to its natural course and purpose: providing food for wildlife. The garlanded hillsides are enough for me during the holiday season.


By Megan Williams



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