By  Andrew Doran1 and Dean Kelch2

1Curator of Cultivated Plants, University & Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley
2Primary Botanist, California Department of Agriculture, Sacramento

Native distribution of Heteromeles arbutifolia

Can you grow holly in the balmy state of California? Yes, you can. Although common holly, Ilex aquifolium, comes from areas with higher rainfall than most of California, holly makes a good garden plant in northern California. It is even slightly invasive along the fog-shrouded coast. Nevertheless, holly is not a particularly common nursery plant. This may be partly due to the presence of toyon: a large, native shrub with handsome, dark evergreen leaves and showy red “berries” borne in the depth of winter. Toyon, a Spanish adaptation of an Ohlone Indian word for this plant, is also known by several English local names as Christmas berry and California Holly. In fact, Hollywood in Los Angeles is named after this plant.

The berry-like pomes ripen to a rich red in winter and often persist until March. Its white flowers are borne in the late spring. There is a yellow-fruited form, named Heteromeles arbutifolia var. cerina, but this is a minor form. There is also a large-fruited form, H. arbutifolia var. macrocarpa, that occurs on the California Channel Islands. Toyon is pictured here recently at Port Costa overlooking the Carquinez Strait and a slowly greening California landscape.

There is only one, somewhat variable species of toyon. It is closely related to other rosaceous shrubs such a Photinia and Rhaphiolepis in the apple lineage of the rose family (Rosaceae subfamily Maloideae). The single species was named Heteromeles arbutifolia M. Roem. because the leaves were perceived as similar to the madrone, Arbutus menziesii. The two unrelated species often occur together, although the madrone ranges much further north into Oregon and a form of toyon is found discontinuously south through the mountains of Baja, California. The plant is one of the few woody plants that occurs in both the Mediterranean type climate of California and the montane areas of irregular rain distribution to the south.

Many of the woody plants in California can regenerate from burls and roots that survive a fire ravaged landscape like the one pictured above at Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa. Toyon will regenerate to a reproductive individual in just a few years after such fires.



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