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Deck The Hills with Boughs of (California) Holly

Toyon, also known as California Holly or Christmas Berry, as seen at Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Northeast L.A. Its red 'berries' are characteristic for this time of the year.
Toyon, also known as California Holly or Christmas Berry, as seen at Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Northeast L.A. Its red 'berries' are characteristic for this time of the year. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Christmas time is here, and while our built environment is festooned with tinsel, colored lights, and other festive regalia, the natural world in our own urban backyard is also ready for the holiday season.

No, it's not snow, unless we're talking about Mt. Baldy or higher with regard to our local peaks. But you don't need as much elevation to see it.

It's our very own Toyon, a plant endemic to our Southern California chaparral hillsides and canyons. Though the plant sports its green leaves year-round, during this time of year, it produces clumps of small red fruits which earned the plant its popular nicknames, "California Holly" or "Christmas Berry."

Though different than the traditional European Holly (Ilex aquifolium) of yuletide lore, the combination of sharp leaf edges (though not nearly as sharp as the real holly) and red berries made it a reasonable local substitute for Southern Californians of the early 1900s to make Christmas wreaths or other holiday decorations with them. In the 1920s,
enough Toyon had been harvested from local hillsides that a law was passed forbidding their removal from public land. But there are no longer any active references to that law today, especially since the Toyon is not a rare and protected native plant species. If you do want to use Toyon for your own sustainable holiday decorations, but don't want to take any chances with the law, you're perfectly free to grow your own of course. Native plant specialty nurseries like the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley definitely stock it, and even local nurseries with California native plant selections will likely sell Toyon. Like most California natives, it's very drought-tolerant, and is best planted in full sun. Mature Toyon can grow to as large as 20 feet tall, but they are relatively slow growers -- it takes at least three years before a newly-planted Toyon in a one-gallon pot can produce its berries.

The "berry" is actually a mini-pome, biologically related to the apple. In fact, the Toyon's botanical name, Heteromeles arbutifolia, refers to a "different apple." The fruit, though edible, has a bitter flavor to human tongues, and is literally best left to the birds: Cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, robins, quails, towhees, and Western bluebirds, among many other species, are especially attracted to the Toyon fruit, usually waiting until late winter when the fruits are well-ripened. Coyotes and bears also eat the red, berry-like fruit.

Still, the local native American tribes like the Chumash, Tataviam, and Tongva (who named the plant), boiled and roasted Toyon fruit for consumption, even making jelly and porridge from them. Spanish and American settlers made wine and custard from the fruit. The native tribespeople also discovered the medicinal properties to Toyon -- the tea made from the plant's leaves or bark was used to cure stomach ailments.

In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion designating the Toyon as the city's official native plant (L.A.'s official flower, Bird of Paradise, and official tree, Coral, are both originally from Africa). The plant's name is also immortalized in our local geography: Griffith Park's Toyon Canyon and Santa Catalina Island's Toyon Bay (where a mysterious oarfish was sighted a few months ago). Some writers and historians even contend that the California Holly, which grows abundantly in the hills above Tinseltown, contributed to the etymology of the name "Hollywood," though that's been heavily debated. One of the many other nicknames of the Toyon is "Hollywood Berry" or "Hollywood Plant." But as a Hollywood native myself, and with all history being heavily debatable anyway, I like to think it contributed to the name somehow.

During your Winter Break or inter-holiday week off, take some time and take a leisurely hike in places like Griffith Park, Elysian Park, Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Northeast L.A., or the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area -- you don't even need to hike very far at all -- and get acquainted with the Toyon yourself. Just look for the oval-shaped leaves, two to four inches long, with the jagged edges (they're not sharp enough to cut you), and of course, the clumps of red "berries." If you still don't have the time to see the Toyon, then add it to your list of New Year's Resolutions.

Better yet, come back in late spring or early summer and see the Toyon's wildflowers in full bloom. They appear like small cream-colored puffs of clouds on the branches. They even attract the pollination services of butterflies. And lest you believe we lack seasons in Southern California, our native flora will show you otherwise.

Like the many natural wonders that surround our urban hustle-and-bustle, the Toyon is something we've likely seen many times before, yet hardly even noticed, unless we take the time to stop and look. It's a living connection to our indigenous past, unique to this part of the world. Its bright red fruits, dark green leaves and white efflorescence are the gifts that keep on giving, not just during the holiday season, but all year long.

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