Sunday, December 25, 2011
It Must be Christmas: California Christmas Berry
This time of year always brings fond memories for me. As a child, upon arrival at my grandparents’ house on Christmas day I would see a large wreath hung on the front door. The wreath was aromatic and made up of cedar, small pine cones and, of course, English holly. Or was it?
As I look back now the latter may not have been holly at all. Taking into account my grandpa and great-uncle Bert’s interest in San Diego’s back country, it could very well have been created from a local favorite found in the foothills and mountains where my great-uncle had a cabin. The favorite I’m referencing was Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon) also known as Christmas Berry.
Heteromeles arbutifolia is a dicot, a shrub native to California occurring only slightly beyond our state’s borders. An extremely diverse plant, Christmas Berry is found in forty-five of California’s fifty-eight counties. A large evergreen shrub/small tree typically growing from eight ft. high and wide but known to grow to twenty ft. where growth conditions are optimal.
Because the first European settlers in Southern California thought the leaves and berries resembled English holly, coupled with the fact the species grew so abundantly in the area of what is now Hollywood, it is believed that the infamous city received its namesake from the plant.
In fact, it is said that the berries were so popular for use in Christmas decorations that a law was passed in the 1920’s making it illegal to pick the branches on public land!
Prior to the arrival of the first Anglo inhabitants, local Native American tribes, such as Chumash, Tongva, and Tataviam, utilized the berries of Christmas Berry as a food source. They made tea from the leaves which served as a stomach remedy. These leaves were also dried, stored and cooked as porridge or pancakes. Later settlers made the berries into a jelly also adding sugar to make custard and wine. The berries are known today to contain small amounts of cyanide but these compounds volatize off after being cooked, leaving a flavor reminiscent of cherry.
Fast forward to today. Heteromeles is a very hardy and drought tolerant plant for the native garden. It’s tolerant of most soil types; summer irrigation also makes it fire resistant by keeping the plant lightly hydrated during spring and summer. In addition, it is versatile—growing in the shade of mixed forest and oak woodland plant communities. Thriving in full sun from coastal sage scrub to inland chaparral, Christmas Berry looks great pruned up as a stand-alone specimen plant, as a hedge, or grouped with manzanita, Rhus integrifolia, Rhamnus spp., deer grass and Ceanothus.
Toyon’s signature red berry clusters appear in winter, but they start in spring as small white five-petaled flowers that attract butterflies and have a spicy odor similar to Hawthorn. Toyon also qualifies as a habitat plant attracting a variety of birds—including cedar waxwings, quail, towhees, western bluebird, robins, mockingbirds and native band-tailed pigeons.
Regardless of what one calls it, be it Heteromeles, Toyon, or Christmas Berry, for me it will always be a reminder of the holly wreath on my grandparents’ front door that meant only one thing—it must be Christmas!