Hollywood got its name from the Toyon, a native tree whose color peaks in December
The Toyon is a California native and cousin to the apple
The Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), aka “Christmas Berry” or “California Holly” is a California native that lives in coastal chaparral and oak woodlands from the Oregon border down to the southern tip of Baja California.
Although quite common along coastal slopes and canyons, this dense, deep green, multi-trunk tree is hardly noticeable for most of the year. In the early summer it blooms with white flowers that attract pollinators in droves (sometimes the trees are so filled with bees, they hum).
In late summer the flowers give way to clusters of deep green berries that remain that way until the weather cools and the rainy season begins in November, when they turn a bright, lipstick red. Among the gray/green landscape of the native sagebrush hillsides, the berry-laden Toyons, practically invisible in summer, suddenly standout like trees decorated with red ornaments. It’s the bright red/green combo in December is what earned it the nickname “Christmas Berry” or “California Holly” — which is where Hollywood, once a planned housing development in the Los Angeles hills, got its name.
As a California native, the Toyon is well-adapted to dry conditions and will tolerate the worst conditions — heat, drought, rocky soil, sand, wildfire, mule deer, you name it. They even thrive under live oaks, which secrete a toxin that keeps most other vegetation away.
A Toyon among sagebrush and live oak at Sage’s Acre
Coyotes will eat the berries (as evidenced by the red, seed filled scat one left in my front yard the other day), but it’s the birds that really love them and carry them back to their nesting sites, where they drop the seeds and, with rain and a little luck, the seeds take root. In fact, it’s the birds who nest along the canyons and arroyos who are responsible for the number of Toyons perched precariously high on steep canyon slopes (the Toyon’s web of net-like roots make it perfect for clinging to the cliff sides).
A Rose is a Rose Unless it’s an Apple
Interestingly, the Toyon is actually a member of the rose (Rosaceae) family, and its flowers and fruit bear a lot of similarities to another member of that plant group, the apples. If you take a close look at Toyon flowers and apple flowers and berries, you’ll see that they do share some similar traits.
A Versatile Landscape Plant
Toyons make a great landscaping plant because they not only look good in the winter, but they add great foundation to the garden he rest of the year.
They’re fine in both sun and shade, slopes or flat ground, and will grow under non-neighborly trees like oak, eucalyptus and pine. You can prune them into dense textured shrubs like a hedge or trim them like leafy trees and they’re equally happy. And, best of all,they require near zero maintenance — no fertilizer, almost no water, no pests. I don’t recommend eating the fruit though because it’s really bitter even when fully ripe.