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Toyon berries: before and after

December 3, 2010

Tis the season for . . . the red berries that some say “Hollywood”  was named after: Toyon, Christmas berry, California holly (botanically speaking: Heteromeles arbutifolia). In typical greedy Southern California fashion, in the 1920’s people were cutting so many branches of this plant for Christmas decorations, a law had to be passed protecting the native shrubs.

This is what the berries (technically pomes) look like after passing through a coyote’s digestive tract:

Coyote, as always, knows a good thing when he sees it . . . the first people of California, as well as those who came after, used toyon berries in a variety of ways: fresh, mashed and diluted as a beverage, dried and cooked, or with sugar added for jelly or wine.

The leaves and berries are also useful for dye, and the very hard wood (I have a toyon weed-digging stick that I tried to whittle a chisel end on last week…tough to carve, for sure) was useful to natives for a variety of purposes, including arrows.

How to distinguish toyon from other local native shrubs? The leaves are longer than lemonade berry, and not as sharp/pointed at the end as sugar bush or laurel sumac. (It took me a while to figure this out…I’m not the brightest botanist on the block…)

I took these photos on a hike out of Santiago Oaks Regional Park today…there are more bright berries this year than I’ve ever seen! Merry Christmas, Orange County foothills!

Here’s some lighting up the hillside adjacent to the old ox-cart road through Weir Canyon…Canada de los Bueyes. I’m a ways away, on the Barham Ridge trail, with a tiny camera (Canon PowerShot SD960 IS) trying its best to zoom:

What a fine afternoon for a barefoot hike…the air as warm as skin and perfectly still, like the whole hillside was holding its breath, waiting…

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