July Garden Update – A Bit of Hollywood on 20th Street: Toyon Shrubs in the Garden

A Bit of Hollywood on 20th Street: Toyon Shrubs in the Garden

Photo 1

Summer is the season the toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia) bloom. Earlier this year they appeared as nondescript shrubs with shiny green leaves and pale rose-gold new growth. Now clusters of white flowers are popping out, and the bees are having a field day. The five-petaled flowers identify this plant as a member of the rose family, along with apples, plums and almonds.

Photo 2 toyon new growth
Toyon new growth

There are four toyons on 20th Street. The older ones, planted in October 2012, are in front of the Southern Exposure building and also in the sidewalk strip in front of that same building. The newer ones are on the Sightglass frontage, one in the sidewalk strip and one to the left of the coffee shop entrance. Both of these were planted in the spring of 2014 and have doubled in size since then — a big thank you to Sightglass for their diligent watering!

Photo 3
(Young toyon near the Sightglass entrance)

Toyons are native to California, with some found in Southern Oregon and as far south as Baja California. They are very adaptable and drought-tolerant, living in a variety of soils, growing in sun or shade. With their large leaves, they make good hedges but can also be trained to grow flat against a wall.

Photo 4 Toyon at Southern Exposure
(Toyon in front of Southern Exposure)

Because they produce red berries in winter, toyons are also known as “California Christmas Berry” or “California Holly.” Hollywood in Southern California is named after these shrubs which once covered the famous hills. Toyons were gathered for holiday decorations almost to extinction until the practice was outlawed in the 1920s.

Photo 5
(California Thrasher bird eating toyon berries. Photo courtesy of laspilitas.com)

Are the berries edible? Yes – but it’s complicated. You have to remember that fruit is a form of bribery by a plant. In exchange for eating delicious fruit, the eater is encouraged to spread the seed around. Humans may spit theirs on the ground; birds or other animals may pass the seed through their digestive system. Either way, the plant’s offspring get a chance at life.

Toyons guard their unripe fruit carefully; unripe fruit means the seed is not ready to plant yet. Unripe toyon berries are green to yellow, bitter-tasting and contain high levels of cyanide. Birds know to stay away until the fruits are bright red. Even when fruits are ripe, the tiny seeds are still toxic to humans (as are apple seeds and peach pits). Native Americans timed their harvest carefully and removed any residual toxins by various methods of cooking and/or aging. (Don’t try this at home!)

Photo 6 bee on toyon
(Bee on toyon flower)

The 20th Street toyons have not produced fruit for the last two winters. As far as this winter goes, the question is, “will they or won’t they?” Is it too shady? Are the plants still too immature? Or is there another unknown requirement which must be met? In the meantime, let’s enjoy the leaves and flowers the plant is offering us now.

Ellyn Shea is a gardener and garden consultant in San Francisco. Visit her at http://www.garden-guidance.com

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