By Cheryl Lisin, Lost Coast Interpretive Association
The toyon is beautiful this time of year, with its bright red berries adorning the shrubs in fall and early winter. Berries provide food for birds and bears, and eye candy for humans! Toyon is a large shrub or small tree with evergreen leaves that are sharply toothed, has grey bark splotched with white, and reddish new twig growth. Bees visit the small white flowers, which are borne in clusters and bloom in early summer.
Toyon is a host plant, providing larval food and shelter for several species of butterflies and moths. The shrub also provides cover for birds and mammals. For humans, the berries are edible, but are tart and bitter when fresh. They taste better cooked and were roasted and eaten by Yurok and Karok peoples, and boiled with a little water to make something tasting like applesauce by the Chumash. Either way, they provide an excellent winter food source. Tea made from the bark and leaves can be used for aches and pains.
Growing in habitats ranging from sandy soils near the coast to rocky soils in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, toyon grows in chaparral, scrub, forest edges, and rarely, in the deep dark forest. It prefers full or part sun and ranges from the Southern Oregon border into Northern Baja California.
Toyon is the state shrub of California. It once grew abundantly throughout its range, its berries inspiring the name of the town, Hollywood. Toyon populations have been reduced through development, agriculture, and people’s proclivity to landscape with exotic plants.
In the landscape, toyon is a fast growing shrub, reaching 10 feet in five years. Very old plants can grow to 25 feet tall or more and make excellent small, multi-trunked trees. Toyon is a good plant for screening out roads or unwanted views. It is a great habitat plant and is relatively fire resistant, being less flammable than other shrubs. Once established, it needs no supplemental summer water. When desperate, deer will browse the lower leaves, preferring plants that are watered.
Like tiny apples, toyon berries are pomes and are botanically similar. Along with apples, toyon is in the rose family, Rosaceae, which is a large family containing stone fruits, blackberries, strawberries, and, of course, roses. If you look closely, each individual toyon flower looks like a miniature simple rose. Heteromeles arbutifolia is the scientific name. The species name, arbutilolia refers to the similarities toyon leaves have to young madrone leaves; arbutus being the Latin name for madrone and folia meaning leaf. As seedlings, the two plants can be difficult to tell apart.
Cheryl Lisin is a native plant enthusiast, landscape designer, and President of Lost Coast Interpretive Association (LCIA), whose mission is to inspire passion for nature in the Lost Coast Region. She is currently working on a native plant garden for LCIA at the King Range BLM office for the education and enjoyment of all. You can contact her at [email protected].