Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a common native shrub here on the Central Coast, which is easily identifiable by its small, but brilliant red berries, which give it its other common names – Christmas berry and California holly.
The five to 15 foot tall shrub is mostly found in the chaparral community alongside plants like scrub oak and lemonade berry. Toyon does not need much shade or water, so it’s clear why the shrub is found in many parts of California, from Baja California to the Sierra Nevada, and especially in our Santa Ynez Foothills. It is also common to see the plant near homes because it makes a great hedge plant, and with enough moisture it can even act as a fire retardant, according to California Native Plant Society.
The berries are the most distinguishing feature on this plant, and they provide food and shelter for many of our native animals. Toyon berries are a food source for animals from small birds such as western bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and mockingbirds to large mammals like coyotes and bears. It’s a win-win for both the animals and toyon, because animals provide the shrub’s main method of seed dispersal. In the summer, the shrubs’ bright flowers offer nectar to a wide diversity of native pollinators.
Toyon is the only California native plant that continues to be commonly known by its Native American name – given to it by the Ohlone people (according to the book California Native Plants for the Garden). For the Chumash, Toyon berries were a traditional source of food. They would collect the fruit in the canyon and roast or allow the sun to dry the berries before mashing them up and eating them. In addition to a food source, toyon could also be used to make tools like utensils, fish hooks, or even arrow shafts.
There is a commonly held belief that Hollywood gets its name from the California holly in the foothills above it. However, according to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Hollywood was named by a wealthy landowner because they liked the name of a friend’s estate in Illinois – also named Hollywood.