Town Mouse Thoughts on Toyon
Toyon, also called Christmasberry (or Heteromeles arbutifolia) is an evergreen shrub and a member of the rose family. Nevin Smith, in his book Native Treasures, sings a veritable ode to Toyons in the chapter "Toyon on my mind".
"In June and July each plant is decorated with many large, branched clusters of cream to white five-petaled flowers... followed by little green berries that expand throughout the summer and fall. As the nights cool, the berries begin to change color, finally taking on hues from crimson through vivid reds to an occasional orange or yellow. ...the berries...have proven so popular for Christmas decorations that local ordinances have been passed to forbid their collection on public lands."
Toyon grow in sun or partial shade, and are drought tolerant. Their natural habitat is chaparral and woodlands below 4000 feet and they seem fairly tolerant of most soils. Here's what California Native Plants for the Garden has to say:
"Toyon is the only California native plant that continues to be known by a Native Amarican name. It retains the name given to it by the Oholone, who along with other California tribes use parts of this plant for food and medicines and implements. Toyon's resemblance to the European holly and its abundance in the hills of southern California were the genesis of the name 'Hollywood'. "
In my back garden, I planted a 1-gallon toyon 3 years ago and I'm trying to espalier it along the fence. It had a difficult start, with leaves turning brown with some kind of fungus, but seems to be doing better now. To quote "California Native Plants for the Garden" once more: "In cultivation, young toyons are frequently weak, spindly plants and usually take a year or two to settle into the garden...After establishment, toyons become long-lived backbone elements of the garden."
In my front garden, I had a 1-gallon "Davis Gold" toyon planted that ended up in the wrong spot. When I tried to transplant it, I found myself with a stick in my hand and few hair-thin spidery roots in the ground. Oh no!
I then ordered a 5-gallon plant, hoping it would be easier to plant. I dug a decent-size hole and tried to extract the plant from the pot, only to find that this was another case of a lot of loose dirt and very few roots. So I very carefully slid plant and soil into the hole, the way you might work an omlette, hoping my toyon would not notice and would settle happily. Luckily, it worked out. While the plant, now 1 year old, hasn't grown a lot, it's stayed healthy and seems to thrive. Even better, I had the first batch of berries and they really are a beautiful golden color. I hadn't dared to hope the color would be so strong, what a wonderful surprise.
Country Mouse Thoughts on Toyon
Toyon grows throughout our neighborhood. We're starting to see the bright red berries, and I have collected a handful for propagation. Toyon tend to grow in among the oaks and other trees as a tall "understory" shrub, somewhat leggy but attractive in the mix of trunks and foliage.
On my property, however, toyon is problematic. It grows everywhere, in sunny and shady areas. Now we have cleared most of the chamise, you can see the toyon more on the sunny south facing slope. In general it doesn't look very healthy, with sparse foliage. I'm not seeing any berries in this area. The toyon generally looks senescent to me.
A lot of lichen grows on the older trunks.
However the hummingbirds love to perch on the naked twigs.
I'm tempted to coppice most or all of it in the hopes that it grows back more bushy and healthy.
On the shadier north-facing slope toyon grows more profusely. The leaves look generally healthier. They trunks tend to flop over a lot, though, and then keep growing. They grow as large as 20 feet tall - or long, if they are recumbent. Unfortunately in the recent storm - the one that destroyed the duct tape greenhouse - a large toyon growing just uphill of the newly excavated path fell over, no doubt weakened by having that big chunk of earth removed.
But most perplexing to me, is the fact that every year, the toyon berries in this area all turn black. Is it sooty mold? That's a fungus that grows on "honeydew" which is "a sweet, sticky liquid that is excreted by plant-sucking insects as they ingest large quantities of sap from the plant." Generally aphids, which in turn are protected by ants, who eat the honeydew (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74108.html) - An interesting thread in the web of life, perhaps, but not one I am particularly fond of looking at. I think I may have to apply neem oil. I've tried spraying the shrubs off with a strong jet of water, but they are too big and floppy. I keep noticing this issue when it's too late. Next year I have to try maybe around September I think. I really haven't seen a lot of aphids and I'm not sure I have the correct diagnosis of what the black stuff is about.
Lower on our property, in an even shadier area on the edge of the redwood grove, they are healthy and do get red berries.