Toyon is another of California’s common shrubs that grows naturally in a multitude of environments; it is at home in the chaparral and woodlands throughout the state, and into the mountains of Baja California. In the wild plants display a great deal of variability in leaf size and shape, color and size of the berries, and growth habit. In my hillside oak woodlands I discovered a Toyon that has grown to a 30 foot tree with a trunk about 6 to 7 inches in diameter!
Leaves of Heteromeles arbutifolia are medium green and leathery with serrated margins. Clusters of small white flowers appear in early summer and attract multitudes of butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects. A bounty of berries start to form in summer, ripening late in fall, and staying on the plant through much of winter. The berries are relished by lots of birds; attracting residents like mockingbirds and house finches, and migratory songbirds like robins, and cedar waxwings. The native peoples also harvested the berries, but only after several months of ripening; using them to prepare drinks, meals and medicines. Toyon is the only native plant that continues to be commonly known by its native American name.
In the garden Toyon can be planted in average soil with good drainage with full sun and given average water. It can also be planted in the light shade of established oaks, and does fine without extra water once established. Toyon needs to be protected from the deer to become established.