Native plant of the month: Toyon

By popular demand, we're reviving our Native Plant of the Month feature, and we'll try something new this time: a shared post.

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 ( - 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.

Toyon are in the rose family and they are heir to the ills that roses suffer from. So I wonder if the black fungus is similar to black-spot fungus on roses. From what I read, you just have to prune the affected bits off of the rose bush and remove them. Whatever the cause, it may be that I'll have to prune the toyons severely in this area too. Maybe they will all grow back bushier and healthier as a result.


Christine said…
Lovely! I have a client with 2 gigantic toyons in her yard that need pruning. I love any plant that has lichen growing on it!
Anonymous said…
I would love to find one with the yellow berries. I have seen them, but my local nursery with a wonderful planted yellow-berried specimen has not been able to secure any for sale. Any ideas?
Interesting, I've never seen the yellow variety either. I've considered growing Toyon here...goodness knows we have lots of space for it. I'm a little concerned about sooty mold though. We find a lot of that on a few of our bay trees that periodically become infested with aphids and ants. Still, I think Toyon would be worth a try here to see how it does, and we have a native plant nursery not too far from here, might have to stop by soon. Nice post!
Country Mouse said…
Ah! curbstone valley farm - you have a good point. I also have bay trees with some of that sooty mold. So I guess it IS the aphids and ants.

Today I put toyon seeds in a flat - extracted from a healthy set of berries I mushed up. I hear that they are easy to propagate. If I get some going and you want to grow local natives, do email me! -- only too glad to share. They wouldn't be ready till next fall though. I'm happy to share freely what I can't use here. I'm just learning. Maybe later I'll turn professional :-)
Town Mouse said…
The yellow berry variety is called "Davis Gold". I got mine from a wholesaler through my garden person. Your nursery should be able to order it through their wholesaler.
Toyon is lighting up my local canyons. I'm surprised to hear of all its troubles, because it seems like one of the few tough and perpetually green mid-sized shrubs in these parts. I've been scared off by its eventual size and never planted it. I'll be prepared for it sulking for a couple years if I ever make space.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Town Mouse for the info. I did a little finger shopping & it looks like they have some at the Theodore Payne Society
about a 1/2 hour from my house.
teresa said…
The yellow ones are very nice. They sound hard to come by though.
debsgarden said…
An interesting plant; it does remind me of holly. I have never heard of it before; I don't think it grows in my area - or perhaps it would, if someone would plant it.
Country Mouse said…
Deb, I see from your fine blog (Welcome to blogging BTW!) that you are in Alabama. Toyon is fairly flexible but I don't know if it would thrive where you are. It is happiest in a mediterranean climate, dry in summer. I have a feeling Alabama is humid in summer. But you have real holly I read, and that surprises me as I thought it required a colder clime. Maybe Toyon is also adaptable. Certainly California natives have long been grown in British gardens - many of the early naturalist explorers came from the UK and their findings were enthusiastically received - more so than in California itself, at least until recently! So you never know.
Kathy Doddridge said…
Is it possible to transplant Toyon? Can it be propogated from cuttings? I live in Florida and healthy plant is growing amongst the mangroves. I would like to add more to an area we just cleared. Any thoughts?