The toyon is the only species in the genus Heteromeles, with the scientific name Heteromeles arbutifolia. Toyon is a perennial shrub found in large numbers in some areas of North America, where it grows in southwest Oregon, California and British Columbia.
The toyon shrub is one of the most common plants part of the coastal sage group. Toyon has also adapted to chaparral landscapes affected by drought, as well as mixed forests. Besides the popular name toyon, it is also known as the California holly or the Christmas berry. Few people know that the name of famous film industry capital Hollywood comes from this plant, which is found in large numbers on the hills around the town.
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The toyon shrub is typically small, with heights between 2 and 5 m, with a top that can be round or irregular. In shaded locations, it can reach a height of up to 10 m. The evergreen leaves grow in alternate pairs, with a length of 5 to 10 cm and a width between 2 and 4 cm. They have short petioles and sharp teeth on the edges. The bloom period is at the start of summer, with dense clusters of tiny 6 to 10 mm white flowers. They consist of five very small petals with a round shape.
The toyon fruits are also small, with a diameter of 5 to 10 mm. These vivid red pomes look similar to berries and the shrub produces a large amount of them. Fruits become ripe in the autumn and stay on the plant during some of the winter months, which makes the toyon an attractive ornamental species. It is also a useful screen shrub.
The macrocarpa variety is the most widely cultivated for ornamental purposes. The sizeable clusters of red berries, which persist in the winter, are the main reason for its popularity. The shrubs are easily located in the month of December, when the red berries make them visible from a large distance even in mixed forests. In the US state of California, toyon sprigs were widely used as a replacement for English holly (Ilex aquifolium). This is why the species is still known as the Christmas berry. However, today this is no longer possible because harvesting wild toyon is now illegal.
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The red berries are not only decorative but also edible. They have a sweet and spicy taste and have been used by humans for a very long time. Native Americans consumed the fruits as both a source of food and as medicine. The first Spanish colonists used them to brew a drink, while it was used to tan fishing nets in the Channel Islands.
Fruits, bark, leaves.
The toyon berries were an important food source for the native tribes. They also used it in their tribal medicine to treat digestive disorders, after preparing it as a tea. Native Americans prepared the fruits as jelly and preserved them in dried form in order to include them as an ingredient in cakes or a form of porridge. European settlers prepared wine and custard by adding sugar to the fruits.
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Toyon berries are known as pomes. They were extremely popular among the tribes in what is today the state of California. Some of the tribes that routinely harvested and consumed the berries were the Tongva, the Costanoan, the Luiseno, the Cahuilla, the Chumash and the Kumeyaay.
It is possible to consume the pomes raw but they have a strong bitter and pungent taste. The easiest way to prepare them is as a jelly after drying them. An alternative discovered by the first European settlers was to only gather the fruits when overripe. Heating them before consumption was another method to further sweeten their taste.
Cahuilla and Costanoan Native American tribes mainly used the fruit for cooking. It was also important in their medicine as a treatment for infected wounds, when prepared as a leaves or bark infusion. Today, it is no longer a secret that most berries have medicinal effects. Some of the most commonly used are the black elderberry as an immunity booster and the white mulberry to reduce the level of blood sugar. Toyon fruits also improve the immune response and can fight cold and other minor infections.
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Infusions of toyon leaves were also used by Costanoan tribesmen, as a method to control and regulate the menstruation cycle of young women. The area of Los Angeles was inhabited by the Luiseno people, who harvested the toyon berries as a food source. They consumed them raw, after letting them in the sun for several days in order to improve their taste. Another tribe that used the shrub for its medicinal benefits was the Kumeyaay. They turned leaves and bark into an infusion that was a useful antiseptic agent when applied on infected wounds. The Mahuna tribe believed the berries were able to quench their thirst when no water was available. This might be explained by an increased production of saliva, due to the bitter taste of the berries.
The toyon fruit was an important food resource for many Californian tribes. Besides those already mentioned, it was also consumed by the Luiseno, Hupa, Wappo, Salinan, Maidu, Karok, Sierra Miwok, Yuki and Pomo. Native Americans only harvested the berries when they were very ripe, in order to be less bitter. They ate them raw or prepared them by roasting or boiling. The Sierra Miwok used a deep oven of narrow earth to cook the fruits. An easier processing method used by local tribesmen was to just keep the berries in a basket for two months. They were then consumed after parching with coals. The berries were known to be pucker due to the astringent taste. A decoction prepared from the bark and leaves was used by the Yuki tribe as a treatment for digestive pain and other body aches in general.
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The toyon fruits are also a major source of food for many species of birds. These include band-tailed pigeons, thrashers, northern red-breasted sapsuckers, thrashers, wren-tits and other game birds and songbirds. The toyon berries are also consumed by mammals like the portola wood rat and the large-eared wood rat.
It is possible to cultivate the toyon in your garden if the soil has good drainage. The red berries are spectacular during the winter and attract many birds who feed on them. The species can be found in the wild all across California and rarely in Oregon.
Established toyon plants are quite hardy and tolerate drought quite well. If the soil is well-drained, they also tolerate water. The species grows on many types of soil, for example beach sand or adobe soils based on serpentine. It enjoys locations with full sun exposure but will also develop in the shade.
In the wild, toyon is found in scattered stands at elevations lower than 1220 m. It thrives on rocky slopes in semi-dry conditions, on mountains, hills and canyon bottoms.
The toyon shares the vulnerability to fire blight of its Rosaceae family relatives and some of its cultivars can be affected by it. Otherwise, toyon is a good choice in gardens because it's less likely to catch fire than most other chaparral species and is recommended for xeriscape gardening since it needs a low amount of water.