Toyon Berries and Hope for the New Year

As we enter the winter season, our eyes are naturally drawn in appreciation to native evergreens. Their vibrant green reflects the winter sunshine as they are invigorated by the first rains of the year.  Among the evergreens we catch the bright red glow of clusters of toyon berries.  Robins and cedar waxwings will enjoy the bounty as the berries ripen throughout the winter.  Like some sage hermit, the toyon teaches that life can abound in austere times.  It also casts our imagination forward to the leaf, flower and fruit of the future, in the turning of the seasons.  Winter yields to spring, and spring to summer.  Our seasons of austerity are just that – a season.

Whether this is a time of austerity or abundance for you, I do wish you the gift of hope in this holiday season and coming year.

Here are some of our red-fruiting natives to consider for (nearly) year round berries:

Berberis nevinii, Nevin’s barberry, is a plant which likely has a higher population in cultivation than in the wild. This arises in part from its limited and threatened native habitat, and in part from the popularity of this adaptable and attractive shrub.  The form is upright and rounded. The leaves are light gray-green, narrow and sharply spiny. Nevin’s barberry is covered with yellow flowers in early spring, followed by bunches of bright red berries. It tolerates full sun and is easily naturalized, though it accepts occasional summer water. Care must be taken in choosing the planting site, since the spiny leaves can be painful to the touch.

Rhamnus crocea, redberry, is a tough, attractive shrub from foothills throughout much of the state. Its dark glossy holly-like leaves contrast well with grey bark displayed in an open, mounded form. In the wild, the form and dimensions of the plant seems to vary with the growing conditions; in sunny chaparral redberry may be quite low, almost a groundcover, while in shadier sites it may grow in columnar form as it reaches for more sun. Redberry is dioecious, meaning that a given plant will predominantly display male or female flowers. Consequently, only the plants with female flowers will display the attractive translucent red berries. The minute flowers are a greenish yellow.

Rhamnus ilicifolia, hollyleaf redberry grows in mountainous regions throughout California and beyond. In the SF Bay Area it is most common in the Diablo Range but also occurs sparsely in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its form is rounded or vase shaped, usually up to about six feet. The evergreen leaves are oval with serrated margins (ilicifolia means that the leaves are like a holly). These grow densely over reddish gray bark. In many ways hollyleaf redberry looks like a miniature hollyleaf cherry, Prunus ilicifolia, or perhaps a small scrub oak, Quercus durata. The fruit, however, shows that this is indeed a redberry. In early summer this shrub is covered with small luminescent red fruit that are relished by birds. The fruit is said to taste like a combination of cherry and cinnamon. It is certainly one of the better tasting wild berries. Plant hollyleaf redberry in a sunny spot with fairly well-draining soil. It is best to provide no supplemental water once the plant is established.

Heteromeles arbutifoliatoyon, is the emblematic shrub in many plant communities around the state. It is especially common at mid-elevations in the coastal mountains of central and northern California. In more southerly settings it seems often displaced by sugar bush, Rhus ovata, and lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia. Toyon grows in a round, open form but can develop into a small tree with age. The leaves are dark with serrated edges. Toyon is also called Christmas berry for the red berries that are abundantly displayed in the late fall and early winter. These seem to mature in mid-winter, at which time they are relished by Robins and other birds. Toyon seems to appreciate an open setting with good air flow, so it is best planted as a specimen rather than as a member of a thicket or hedge. In both wild and domestic settings, Toyon is relatively vulnerable to disease, so care should be taken to protect against infection (e.g. only prune with sterile equipment).

Actaea rubra,  red baneberry, is found throughout much of the USA and Canada. In California its range includes the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades and the coast ranges north of Santa Cruz County, with a few scattered populations elsewhere. Red baneberry prefers shady sites with rich acidic soil and moisture. Following winter dormancy, the leaf stocks rise with multiple serrated leaflets. The number of stocks increases from year to year in an expanding clump. After several years, the white flower appears, followed by a cluster of red berries. The baneberry is named for its poisonous red berries, which warn against planting in areas accessible to pets or young children.

Lonicera hispidula, pink honeysuckle, is native to much of the California Floristic Province. This attractive vine is found growing among other shrubs in mountainous settings. Its magenta flowers are a welcome sight hanging from trailside shrubbery in mid-summer. These are followed by translucent berries of bright red to orange. Pink honeysuckle is quite adaptable to various growing conditions but needs some protective shade. A trellis allows this vine to be well displayed, but placing it among other shrubs minimizes the visual impact of its winter dormancy.