Toyon: One of My Favorite Native Plants, by Celia Kutcher
by Celia Kutcher, 2010.August.05
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is high on my list of all-round great plants.
Size: In nature it is generally a large shrub; in the garden it can be trained into a multi-trunk small tree or an informal hedge. It is fairly fast-growing, often shooting up to a possibly-gangly 8 feet or so in four or five years from a five-gallon can. It then fills out into a solid landscape element, and may be 15+ feet high and wide if left to grow naturally.
Leaves: Toyon leaves are evergreen, long, narrow, shiny dark green and clean-looking year-round. The leaves are edged with small, stiff teeth, leading to another of its common names: California Holly. It is said that abundant Toyon were growing at a new town site near Los Angeles many years ago, hence the new town was named Hollywood.
Flower – Fruit: In early summer, Toyon bears large flattish clusters of many small white flowers. These mature by early winter into small, bright red fruits, leading to another common name, Christmas Berry. There is also a yellow-fruited form. The flowers attract butterflies and other nectar-feeders, the fruits are a favorite of many birds. The fruits are edible, if bland; California’s Native Americans made cider with them as well as drying them for future use.
Environment: Toyon is a common shrub in much of California and into Baja, in coastal sage-scrub, chaparral, oak woodland, and mixed-evergreen forest. In Orange County, it tends to be found on north- and east-facing slopes and in ravines. It likes full sun to part shade, and does not need, but will take, some summer water.
Botany: Toyon is a member of the Rose Family, Rosaceae. Examination of the flowers reveals the family’s tell-tale characteristic hypanthium, a bowl-like structure to which the petals and stamens are attached. The fruits are pomes, like apples and pears (also members of the Rosaceae). In fact, “hetero-meles” is Greek for “different apple.”
Toyon has everything: good landscape form, looks good year-round, flowers, fruit, drought tolerance, wide adaptability. All this makes it one of my favorites.