A handsome and distinctive shrub, Heteromeles arbutifolia seems quintessentially Californian, perhaps because, as legend goes, its distinctive holly-like red berries easily visible in chaparral near Los Angeles gave rise to the name for Hollywood. Common names are toyon, from a Native American term, and the even more descriptive Christmas berry and California holly for the bright red fruits that ripen in December.
Because of its mature size that normally reaches 8-12 ft. tall by 4-6 ft. wide, toyon is most suited to large gardens. In some situations, it may reach as large as 15-20 ft. tall. When regularly pruned, however, it can be accommodated in a typical home garden. With careful attention removing lower branches, it may also be trained into a multi-stemmed small tree.
Toyon bears rosettes of glossy, dark green leaves finely serrated along margins; foliage is carried densely year-round. Summer bloom brings abundant flat topped clusters of small, creamy white flowers that produce bountiful pale green berries before turning bright red in early winter. Berries persist for several weeks until devoured by numerous species of birds. ‘Davis Gold’ is an unusual selection whose berries are golden yellow.
Toyon seems to tolerate most soil types and will handle dappled overhead shade as it does natively in mixed woodlands. Growth is a bit leggier in heavy shade as stems reach for sunlight. Sites in full sun are preferred and blossoms are more prolific.
Like many other California native shrubs, toyon is naturally drought tolerant during the dry season when it does not want much summer water after it’s established. It will tolerate some supplemental moisture and actually thrives most beautifully when lightly irrigated.
A moderately slow grower in the first years after planting, toyon may require some protection from browsing deer. In maturity deer are less attracted to the leathery leaves but may nibble on branch tips. By removing lower branchlets, exposing lower main stems, and thereby raising foliage several feet above ground, deer damage is negligible.
Toyon is the only species in its genus, but is closely related to the Asian photinia. It’s in the family Rosaceae, and like pyracantha, apples, and pears can be susceptible to fireblight.