By Ethan Rayner
Fall is in the air, and along with the time change, atmospheric river, and crunchy leaves, another telltale seasonal display is just beginning… Berry season! No, not the idealized plump and juicy commercially available berries found through the summer. In this case, toyon berries, just starting to turn a vibrant red on the ends of dark green waxy-leafed branches. While many other California native and non-native ornamental plants decorating our yards and parks drop their leaves and go dormant in preparation for winter, toyon is just starting to come on to its own.
What’s in a Name?
The name, “Toyon”, is said to come from the Ohlone language, but is just one of many names Indigenous peoples have for this plant. Hundreds of names exist for toyon and most California native plants given to them by the peoples who had direct relationships with them. In our region of the East Bay, the indigenous Chochenyo word for toyon is “Tuyuk”.
Toyon’s scientific name is Heteromeles arbutifolia, which can be a mouthful and hard to remember, but also tells us a lot about this plant as well… at least for those of us willing to learn Latin. The genus name, Heteromeles, translates as “different apple” due to its distant relation to cultivated apples. The species name, arbutifolia, reflects the similarity of toyon leaves to the foliage of the unrelated Strawberry tree and pacific madrone. Both are large, waxy, and evergreen.
Toyon as Tree or Shrub?
When I was first getting my naturalist legs under me, toyon was originally described as a “shrub that wants to be a tree… or a tree that wants to be a shrub”. I have always remembered that description as toyon can vary wildly in appearance depending on its habitat and location. You can see the variety of forms this plant takes, some are multi-trunked sprawling hedges, others can have a single trunk and reach for the sky. Generally, toyon grows to between 6 – 15 ft tall, but can grow into a sizable tree at 30 ft tall in good conditions.
Toyon is one of those classic California native plants that grows almost exclusively within the state (excerpt for a notable population in Baja California and the extreme southern part of
Oregon). Toyon is a very hardy plant and can grow in many different habitats. It is found most commonly in the coastal ranges of our state, where it thrives in shaded watersheds, cliffsides, and even adjacent to salt marshes. It can also be found in drought-tolerant chaparral habitats including the inland Sierra Nevada foothills.
Home is where the Habitat Is
Toyon berries are among the most important food sources for migratory and overwintering birds as well as non-hibernating mammals throughout California during the fall and winter months. Mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, American robins, and sparrows, to name just a few, rely on toyon to provide a vital food source during the lean months of November and December.
The berries themselves have only a small amount of protein and calories per berry, so birds and mammals have to eat a lot of them whenever they can. As the season progresses certain birds become more territorial over specific plants and utilize different strategies to keep competitors away. For more information on the winter birds that rely on toyon, and their specific and different feeding habits, check out this excellent article from Bay Nature in 2016. The toyon itself benefits directly from this competition. As the berries are consumed, the flesh is digested, and the seed passes through, eventually being dispersed far away from the parent plant.
Foraging Wild Berries
Toyon berries are edible and can be quite enjoyable. They can be eaten raw as a trailside snack in small amounts, but due to their high tannin content, they can be very bitter and astringent without treatment. To consume the berries in any large quantity, they should first be cooked or dried to help remove the bitterness. The berries will get sweeter in December as the tannin content naturally tends to decrease. Once harvested and washed they can be sun-dried or cooked in the oven at the lowest possible setting.
A simple cider can be made with dried berries and water, or they can be used in any recipe calling for berries.
A few important notes about foraging:
- Remember to leave enough berries for the wildlife. NEVER take all the berries from a single bush, instead spread out your collection over several different plants while being mindful of your impact on the local plants and habitat overall.
- Harvest only from plants you are completely certain of and have identified previously in the past. Toyon has a few lookalikes, including Cotoneaster, whose berries also are red and ripe in November, but are toxic. Look for toyon’s thornless branches and waxy serrated leaves.
The humble toyon is one of many residents of our local watersheds, read more about them as a part of our North Richmond Urban Nature Loop which connects people to local nature. Let us know if you spot them as one of the 10 illustrated sidewalk stickers along Giarmita Street from Verde Elementary to Shields Reid Park!
Foraging California, Christopher Nyerges, Falcon Guides, 2019
iNaturalist. (2023). Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon). iNaturalist. Retrieved 09 November, 2023 from https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/53405-Heteromeles-arbutifolia