Doreen Fogle: Grow berries for the birds and Christmas |

Doreen Fogle: Grow berries for the birds and Christmas

Bright red berries are California’s most important winter food source for native birds. And from a tough, beautiful evergreen shrub that’s perfect for landscape use! The shrub is toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), a California native living all along the coastal hills and the northern Sierra foothills. It’s also been called Christmas berry or California holly.

The berries ripen around Thanksgiving time through the Christmas season, providing brilliant red berries on the wild hillsides.

A client of mine said she always liked toyon. Her mother would bring in boughs with berries for Christmas décor. When I suggested we plant some in her yard she didn’t even know they grew naturally around here. She was happy to get some for her yard, and I want everyone to know what a useful shrub for home landscapes it is.


Toyon likes full sun to part shade. It grows to about 6-10 ft. tall, sometimes to even 20 ft., and 6 ft. or more wide. It’s reported that it can grow to 10 ft. in three years.

It prefers faster draining soils but will tolerate heavy clay and serpentine soils. If the soil is heavy watering must be reduced accordingly.

As a native in the wild it does fine with the water our climate gives it. In a landscape situation it can handle a bit of extra watering, and may even look better. New plants need watering through the first few summers to get them established. After that they can be weaned down to maybe a good, deep soaking once a month for summer months only.

Toyon can handle some landscape water, but not frequent watering. That’s what makes it vulnerable to stem and root rot diseases. In fact, frequent shallow watering is the biggest cause of disease and shortened life in natives.

Toyon flowers with large clusters of tiny white flowers in late June – July, making it a good late source of nectar and pollen for the native bees and butterflies.

The berries start to ripen at Thanksgiving time through to Christmas. They were used for food by the native peoples of California. But use caution. The berries contain a bitter, toxic chemical called cyanogenic glucoside which protects the fruit from being consumed before it’s ripened. Once the fruit is ripened, the chemical gets transferred to the seeds, which pass through the gut to be dispersed.

Birds know when the fruits are ripe, as did the native peoples, as well as the coyotes and bears. All help to spread the seeds.


This plant is drought tolerant and deer resistant. It can be trimmed to form a hedge and can be used as a screen.

Or it can be trimmed to grow as a multi-stemmed tree or as a taller single-trunked tree.

There’s an 80 ft. toyon tree with a 6 ft. diameter trunk in Long Beach. I don’t know how old it is, but imagine how many really large toyon trees there might have been before we developed so much of the state. And all dripping with red berries to feed the birds!

It’s a perfect shrub to plant under the oaks…which aren’t supposed to get watered!

It is great on slopes where it helps prevent erosion and it’s good as a highway plant.

Toyon is a safe fire plant. Safe enough to be near your home, especially if you give it some supplemental deep watering. And out in the larger landscape, if it does burn, it stump sprouts very quickly. And then regrows quickly.

When planting toyon, no amendment or fertilizer is needed. It’s perfectly adapted to our soils and the microorganisms that live there. But mulching is a good idea.

Established plants are virtually maintenance free.

Toyon feeds the birds in the winter and it feeds the insects that feed the birds, especially in spring.

“Any plant that encourages bird life, supplies the bees with an unexcelled source of honey, gives food to man, furnishes tannin from its bark, protects arid slopes from erosion, paints the landscape with vivid colors and carries joy into the home at Christmas time, when no other berries are available to most Californians, sure deserves the protection of man, whom it serves so well,” said Ralph Cornell, landscape architect, 1938

This quote was written long before science realized the connection between the native insects that feed on native foliage and their role in maintaining native bird populations. (If you haven’t read my previous article on this topic you may catch up on it in my blog at


Two plants are commonly used for screening and hedging: Photinia and English laurel. They both have their useful qualities although neither of these are completely deer resistant. Photinia originates from Asia and English laurel is from southeastern Europe and Iran. The fruits of Photinia feed birds, but the foliage does not support our native insects. And neither does the English laurel, because our native insects which feed our native birds need to eat native plants.

So consider the toyon. It hosts up to eight native butterfly and moth species — chewing toyon leaves and creating protein for the birds to feed their young.


One of the best ways to get the native plants you’d like is to go to your local nursery and ask for them. Nurseries can special order plants. The wholesale nursery Suncrest grows a lot of native plants. They’re located in Watsonville, California and most of our local nurseries order from them. You can look up what you’re looking for to see if they grow it, and if they do, it can be ordered from them. But, they are not always available, so start early and you may need to wait until they are available.

A word about looking up plants at Suncrest: I’ve had the best success by going to the “Search Plants” and clicking on the H for the genus name Heteromeles and scroll from there. Otherwise it looked like they didn’t even have it, but they do.

By asking for native plants nurseries will respond to demand.

Our local Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society has its plant sale on the first Saturday of October each year. These are all locally propagated plants. Look up their website to find more information.

There are other sources for native plants and I’ll cover that in future articles.

So, what is there not to like in a plant that is virtually maintenance free, deer won’t eat it, it feeds the birds and the insects that also feed the birds and their babies, needs little to no water, helps the pollinators, can be used to screen out the neighbor’s old trucks, or to line a walkway, or under oaks, or hold the soil on a slope or bank, is a fire safe plant (when used wisely), and if it is burned it makes a comeback within weeks, brings seasonal holiday beauty and natural décor for the home? Now is a great time to plant one…or many.


A couple places I see toyon is along Highway 49 between North San Juan and Nevada City, and from 49 down along Newtown Rd., with its serpentine soils.

I’ve tried to decorate early with the toyon berries, but they blacken too soon to look nice for Christmas. It seems best to harvest right before Christmas. But then, it is the most important winter food source for birds, so go lightly. Or better yet, plant a bunch in your landscape to have enough for you and the birds.

Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website and she can be reached at

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