Identification: Essentially always a small tree or shrub (generally upright, but sometimes forced to sprawl a bit) with simple, toothed, evergreen leaves that are not strikingly distinctive. If in doubt: they aren’t young madrones because they don’t have smooth red bark, and they aren’t young bays because the leaves are toothed, not smooth-edged, nor do they have bay’s peppery odor when rubbed. White flowers in summer give way to red berries in fall and winter (thus the names “Christmas berry” or “California holly”).
Where: Toyon appears in small numbers in the understory of mixed species woodland (with oaks, madrones, bays, buckeyes, etc.) and into the chaparral (sharing edges with coyote bush and manzanita, and sometimes venturing into the thick of it). Widespread throughout the area, but never abundant: you will generally find scattered trees only, sometimes more numerous than other times, but practically never the dominant tree in the area. Look for it at Rush Creek, Indian Valley, Indian Tree and any of our woodland preserves.
or On Dendrological Humility
Toyon is one of the least assuming citizens in our woodland communities. It is not large, abundant, or imbued with any special grace or idiosyncrasy of form. The books say that it can grow quite large, apparently with giants the size of live oaks in the hot hills of southern California. And the books likewise note that it is very widespread, which I do believe, appearing in a variety of woodland and chaparral communities across the state and beyond. But widespread is not the same as abundant in any particular location, and so the scattered individuals (with perhaps a cousin over here and an uncle over there) a beginning local tree watcher passes by may easily be passed by without remark.
Toyon is small and does little to draw attention to itself, but it isn’t particularly difficult to identify. Among the diverse woods where it lives, it is just another face in the crowd – until you make its acquaintance and then you will see toyon easily all over the place, as with any human raised from anonymity by the mild electricity of friendship. Toyon is typically a small tree – and although small in height (an average specimen might be some 12 ft. tall) it does usually tend distinctly towards tree-ishness, with a largely vertical form and a single trunk. Sometimes, when topography and overcrowding require it, toyon will twist and sprawl and fill in the spaces left by other plants, concealing its tree nature and temporarily mystifying with a scattered branch seemingly poking out here or there from a sprawl of coyote bush and blackberry or the like.
Toyon leaves are simple and evergreen and of an average size, with some similarities to other local trees when looked at in isolation from the whole plant. In their sturdiness and with their coarsely toothed margins, they are probably most likely to be confused with the leaves of madrone, whose company they often share. But you should not confuse the trees: just look for madrone’s telltale smooth red bark, which is utterly distinct from other trees, including toyon, whose bark is an unexceptional gray that is not distinctive in any particular direction. To the knowing eye, the leaves of toyon have their differences too, averaging much smaller than those of madrone (perhaps 6” vs 10” in length, though dimensions vary) and with undersides only a few subtle shades lighter than their upper surfaces (compared to madrone’s cool-creamy undersides). Toyon’s bark and general leaf shape could perhaps also lead to momentary confusion with a young bay tree at first glance, but close examination should dispel this notion as well: toyon leaves are toothed, those of bays are always smooth margined and have their distinctive peppery odor, stronger when handled. And toyon leaves are not quite as lanced-shaped as those of bays, but have a slight widening spoonishness beyond their midpoint.
But like even the humblest of persons, toyon has its moment when it swells with pride, puts forth an unexpected effort, and says I alone can do this.
For toyon, that moment comes in fall, when their branches are laden with thick clusters of red berries that finally attract the notice of the average human. “California holly” it has been called (leading, perhaps apocryphally, to Southern California’s Hollywood) for their evocation of that more traditional red berry, or “Christmas-berry,” though the timing is not always exact, with ripe berries on the tree anytime from October till February. The preceding summer flowers, small and white, are pleasant enough and lend a restrained ornamentation that seems in keeping with toyon’s down-to-earth dependability. But the fruits are more striking, bright red and hanging close to eye level thanks to toyon’s general human-scaledness, suddenly revealing to the innocent hiker the presence of these subtle understory residents they had likely passed by in spring and summer without even a momentary glance of recognition.
You shouldn’t eat these berries (by and large, red berries are nature’s shorthand for mammals – do not eat), but birds do with great relish. The combination of these attractive berries and toyon’s reliably small size make it a popular plant for drought-tolerant wildlife gardens and it is not hard to find from nurseries specializing in California native plants. Fruiting as they do in winter, when insects and fresh produce are harder to find than in spring, a wide swath of our winter bird life will descend upon the local toyons, eating the berries and spreading their seeds. So it often goes with the humble: they are passed by unnoticed and unthought of, but they are there when they are needed, and they will receive their compensation in the end.
Name: Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia.
Toyon is the only one of our trees still commonly known by a Native American name. We should have more such names, considering they knew them first. But we do have some other relatively common folk names for toyon as well: “California holly” and “Christmas berry” both take their origin from the bright red berries which develop in fall and winter (you might see them from October to February, depending on the specific tree’s environmental conditions). Heteromeles arbutifolia continues this suitable trend of down-to-earth comprehensibility, no false grandiosity here! Heteromeles means something like “different apple,” because yes they are red spherical fruits, but no they certainly aren’t apples, while arbutifolia means they have leaves (folia) like an arbutus (the genus including our madrones). And the resemblance is evident: sturdy, coarsely toothed, and evergreen, though a size smaller than those of madrone and lacking the distinctly two-toned quality of madrone leaves with their silvery undersides.
(Note that toyon is in an entirely different family and has broadly different botanical traits than madrones. The last part of the name (the “specific epithet”) refers only to a distinguishing trait of this particular species, not any evolutionary relatedness.)