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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Plant of the Month (December) : Toyon - Heteromeles arbutifolia

Young Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) in mixed hedgerow
Mother Nature's Backyard

Oh joy!  Just in time for the cold dark days of winter, the red berries of Toyon (California Christmas Berry; California Holly) are ripening in Mother Nature’s Backyard.   Our Toyons are still pretty small, but they hint of future greatness.  You may want to consider this quintessential California native for your own garden.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) can be seen in the wild from SW Oregon to Baja California, Mexico.  In California, it grows most commonly in the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral plant communities, but also occurs in Oak Woodlands and even on sandy beach areas away from the immediate shore.  Toyons are lowland plants (< 4000 ft. elevation) and are often seen on steep slopes and in canyons locally.   The plants are particularly noticeable in winter, when their red berries are unmistakable.   The picture below shows Toyon growing in Malaga Canyon on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.    You can also see them on the Southern Channel Islands.

Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia)
in Malaga Canyon, Palos Verdes Penninsula

Toyon is a large woody shrub to medium-sized tree.  Its shape and size are strongly influenced by the amount of light a plant receives. Toyon is unusual in its light requirements: it can grow in full sun, part-shade and even quite shady areas.  In full sun, a mature Toyon becomes a large, rounded shrub 10-20 feet tall and slightly less wide (see photo below).  In shade, Toyon becomes more tree-like and can reach heights of 35 or more feet (see photo below). 

Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Madrona Marsh Nature Center (l); Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (r)

In sun or shade, Toyon is a lovely shrub with neat, medium to dark leaves and evergreen foliage.  Its tidy appearance, numerous flowers and showy berries  endear this native to gardeners throughout California.  The leaves are a modest size (2-4 inches long), simple, with serrated edges.   The new leaves are bright yellow-green; older leaves are darker green and slightly glossy (see below).  The leaves are stiff and fairly thick – part of Toyons’ adaptation to our dry climate.

Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia)

Toyons are dense shrubs with many stout branches.  Their shrubby habit make them good choices for hedging.  The dense foliage also provides perches, cover and nesting sites for local breeding bird species.

Many gardeners are surprised to learn that Toyon is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae). Its small white flowers are often appreciated en mass – and at a distance.  A closer look reveals flowers that are quite typical for the Rose family: plant parts in multiples of five, both male and female reproductive organs in the same flower, a green cup-shaped structure at the base of the flower (the hypanthium) and pale, cream-white color (see below).   To learn more about the Rose family see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/rosaceae-2013

Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia) flowers.
Note characteristics of Rose family (Rosaceae).

Like many in this family, Toyon attracts a wide range of pollinator insects including native bees, pollinator flies, and even butterflies.   The masses of blooms in late spring or early summer are a magnet for pollinators, making Toyon a good addition to a pollinator-friendly garden.    In fact, one trick to a successful pollinator garden is to include flowering shrubs and trees like Toyon.

Toyon’s fruit also reflects its Rose family heritage.  If you look closely at the fruits (see below) you’ll note that they somewhat resemble a small apple (note: apples are also in the Rose family).    The fruit shape, red color when ripe and sweet flesh are typical of this family.  These fruit characteristics reflect a long history of beneficial interaction between plants and birds/animals.   The plants offer a sweet treat, while the birds provide a convenient method for distributing seeds.  
Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia). Insert shows
'Davis Gold' - cultivar with yellow fruit

But the story of Toyon fruits and birds has one more interesting twist.  The seeds need to be ripe before the fruits are eaten.  To insure this, plants have developed several means to insure that fruits aren’t eaten too soon.  1) The fruits change color to indicate when they are ripe (from green to orange and finally to dark red); 2) they become sweeter as they ripen; 3) unripe fruits produce cyanide and other chemicals that are toxic and/or taste bitter. 

While Native Californians ate Toyon fruits, we don’t recommend it.  Native peoples knew when the fruits were ripe and how to prepare them to remove the toxins.  So, let the birds enjoy the Toyon berries – while you enjoy the birds.   Among the fruit-eating birds attracted to Toyon are mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, robins, finches, flickers, hermit thrushes, warblers and song sparrows.  Often the ripe fruits begin to ferment before they are eaten.   So your birds may get a little ‘tipsy’ when eating Toyon fruits.  

As members of the Rose family, Toyons are susceptible to fungal (and some bacterial) diseases that affect the leaves and roots.  The best preventive measure is to plant Toyons in well-drained soils or on slopes – and not over-water, particularly in foggy, coastal areas.   Toyons become quite drought tolerant after 2-3 years in the ground.  Mature plants need only occasional water – or none at all – in summer (Water Zone 1 to 1-2; Zone 2 on slopes and further inland).  Plants at CSU Dominguez Hills (10 miles from the coast in Carson California) receive no summer water after three years and are strong and healthy.   

Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia) in
Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, Gardena California
If you have dense clay soil, plant Toyon on a small berm (2-3 ft tall) and water sparingly.  Toyon root systems are net-like and widespread, so they are good for erosion control and Toyon does well growing on slopes.   Toyon is happy in un-amended soils and needs no added fertilizer.

Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia) pruned as
multi-trunk tree.  South Park, Hermosa Beach, California

Toyon is most often planted as a native ornamental shrub.  It has a nice natural shape and needs little pruning.  But another benefit of Toyon is it’s adaptability.  Toyon can be pruned as a hedge or screen (6-10+ ft) and is often included in native mixed hedges or hedgerows (we have one in our hedgerow at Mother Nature’s Backyard).  It can also be pruned up into a multi-trunk ‘tree’ (see above). Pruning is best done during dry periods in February-April or in summer after blooming (choose a cool, dry period).  Prune as needed during the growth period (spring/summer) if hedge-pruning.   Don’t take too much at any one time – and be sure to use sterile pruners.  Remember that flowers & fruit occur on older wood; take too much and you sacrifice flowers.

Young Toyon (California Holly; Heteromeles arbutifolia) trained as espalier,
Mother Nature's Backyard

Toyon can be trained to grow in narrow spaces.  In fact, we are training one as an espalier in the garden (see photos above).  When mature, our Toyon espalier will provide flowers and fruits – and hide our cinder-block wall – all in a narrow area about 2 ½ feet deep.    Toyon can even be grown in large containers – or as a bonsai.

Toyon is yet another example of a practical native plant.  Native Californians used a mild tea from leaves to treat stomachache and other pains.  It was also used to wash infected cuts and sores.  Natural dyers use the leaves, bark, small branches and fruits to create lovely orange and brown colors. Native Californians used the dyes to color fish weirs.   If you use Toyon as a dye, be sure to heat the dye bath out-of-doors; heating releases cyanide chemicals.   For more on natural dyes see our October 2013 posting.

Finally,  the foliage and fruits make lovely additions to winter wreaths, centerpieces and bouquets. That’s another reason to included the ‘Holly’ that made Hollywood famous (Toyon) in your garden.  We’ll discuss making a grape-vine wreath later this month (December, 2013).



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



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