Monday, December 19, 2016

California Christmas Berry

Oh, lovely Christmas greenery: the holly, the ivy, the evergreen, the mistletoe... the toyon!  I've personally never heard a Christmas song about that last one (and if you have, I'd love to hear it), but here in California, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is our very own native Christmas shrub. 
Also called California Christmas Berry or California Holly, toyon is an attractive and hardy shrub of the Great Central Valley and surrounding foothills below 4,000 feet, a part of the chaparral community.  It can be found across the state, from coast to mountains, north to south, but is excluded from deserts and high elevations.  Toyon is not only native to California, but endemic to California and Baja California, found nowhere else in the world.  It is an evergreen shrub, but it is around Christmas time that toyon really shines, clusters of bright red berries (technically pomes, like apples and pears) covering the large 15-foot shrubs.
Toyon plays an important role in its community.  Dense evergreen foliage provides cover for ground-dwelling species such as California Quail, and nesting sites for California Towhees, California Scrub Jays, Anna's Hummingbirds, and others.  Woodrats often build their houses against the trunks of toyon, moving about under the thick cover of branches.  Small flowers in the summer are a source of nectar and pollen for native bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds (including 27 species of native bees).  It is the larval  host for 50 species of moth, meaning the larvae of these species may feed at times exclusively on its host species.
Perhaps most notably, Toyon is a valuable source of winter food for fruit eating birds, such as cedar waxwings, thrushes and robins.  I've also seen Western Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows feasting on ripe toyon berries.  During the winter in California's chaparral and oak woodlands, toyon and mistletoe (another plant associated with Christmas that provides a long list of surprising benefits to the ecosystem) are the sole providers of berries for a number of bird species.  In addition to birds, plenty of mammals rely on toyon as a source of food as well, including Black Bears, Coyotes, foxes and rabbits; deer browse new growth, but only woodrats have adapted methods to eat the mature leaves, which contain cyanide compounds and tannins that make them unpalatable to other animals.

Toyon is well-adapted to the wildfires that are a natural component of the chaparral community.  They re-sprout from the crown, near the ground, after the top of the plant and bulk of its biomass  has burned.  The living roots of toyon provide erosion control in recently burned areas, holding precious soil in place as the ecosystem begins to recover.

This winter, if you get the chance, take a drive into the foothills of the Coast Range, the Sierra or the mountains of Southern California, and keep an eye out for California's Christmas Berry, brilliant shrubs resplendent in their winter glory.

If you're interested in reading more about toyon and other plants and animals of California's oak woodlands, I highly recommend Kate Marianchild's beautifully written and illustrated book, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands.  In it, the author captures all the wonder of one of our most remarkable and recognizable plant communities, making readers fall in love with our oak woodlands ecosystem.

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