By Steven Hightower, SCMG
My rear deck sits at the edge of a patch of mixed evergreen forest—valley, blue and coast live oak, madrone, California bay, manzanita, and a small grove of redwoods. And heteromeles arbutifoloia (toyon). As I bubble in the hot tub on that deck at days’ end, the long view, past the patchwork of the Benziger Family vineyards, is the purple line of sunset slowly rising up the lower Mayacamas. The near view is a small forest of those toyon ranging from three to 12 feet in height, lovely with their rosettes of dark, glossy green, finely serrated leaves and, at this time of year, abundant clusters of dark red berries. A handsome and distinctive shrub, toyon seems quintessentially Californian—it somehow evokes native Americans. It’s also known as Christmas berry or California holly for obvious reasons. Hollywood actually may take its name from toyon, since it was a principle plant in the chaparral of the Hollywood hills.
Heteromeles is very hardy and quite versatile—at least as far as a drought tolerant plant will go. It seems to tolerate most soil types, and will handle the shade of this mixed forest, although prefers full sun. It is fuller and more compact in sun, and does get a bit leggier in shade, reaching for the sunlight. It doesn’t like much summer water after it’s established, but will tolerate some. Toyon is not a small shrub - it grows normally to around 8 feet tall by 4-5 feet wide, and happy old fellows can be 15-18 feet tall. However, it can be shaped and pruned.
Glenn Keator, author of Designing California Native Gardens, in a recent talk at the California native botanical garden at Tilden Park suggested a ‘substitution’ of drought tolerant natives for more common landscape plants. He held up branches of red-berried viburnum and cotoneaster, commenting on how commonly they are used by landscapers, but at a high water cost. “Toyon”, he said, “provides the same sort of attributes and usefulness, at a much lower water cost”. It carries insignificant clusters of small white five-petaled flowers in summer, that butterflies like and some say smell like hawthorn. toyon also attracts a variety of birds—including cedar waxwings, quail, towhees, Western bluebird, robins, mockingbirds & band-tailed pigeons.—and so qualifies as a habitat plant. The berries persist for a long time, since it seems they don’t become attractive to birds until very ripe. Keator said there is an unusual gold berried selection called “Davis Gold” that was developed at UC Davis. I’ve not seen it myself, but will be on the lookout.
Fortunate as I am to have a lot of natural toyon, I also use them in landscaping. I’m ‘fleshing out’ understory in some areas of oak woodland, between the trees, using toyon as well as manzanita, rhus integrifolia, rhamnus, and deer grass. Toyon can be used as a specimen plant, and hedged quite successfully, too, either alone, or with manzanita and maybe one of the larger ceanothus.
They’re moderately slow growers, at least in my soil and exposure, but are worth the wait. And they’re pretty maintenance free—they need no pruning, cutting back (well, in a hedge they do), heading, feeding, or even watering in the summer (after establishment of a couple of years, of course). It’s normally quite deer-proof, although if watered, can be susceptible at the end of a dry summer when deer are desperate. And they may eat the new leaves of smaller plants, but once the plant has grown to some size, this no longer is an issue. Toyon is the only species in its genus, but is closely related to the Asian photinia. It’s in the family rosaceae, and like pyracantha, can be susceptible to fireblight (see UCCE Pestnote for control information)
One curious habit I’ve observed is that they have a tendency to grow directly at the base of an oak tree. I mean smack up against it. A fellow master gardener speculated that the birds were sitting in the oak and eliminating the berries, but that would mean they’re right up against the trunk, rather than perching out in the oak’s branches. Perhaps the berries are a favorite food of a particular flicker, which would mean that the drop occurs while the bird is actually on the oak trunk. More research is needed!
Toyon are great to have if you make holiday wreaths. Weave some grape-vine cuttings into a circular armature. Twine branches of dark-berry laden bay around to achieve a base, and then weave in branchlets of toyon, full of deep red berries for a wonderful and natural combination. And if you have some vitis Roger’s Red in your garden (see last month’s featured plant), add some of its crimson leaves. You’ll have the most unusual front door in your neighborhood.