The winter garden is often subtle shades of green and browns. And frankly, quite boring. Add a lot of rain and mud and moldy plants, and it can look awful. Some gardens get snow to cover that shit up and make the garden look clean and pastoral, but in temperature California, winter rains and repeated frost often just make the garden look soggy and sad. If your garden and landscape is looking a bit lack-luster, consider adding some red berries to brighten it up. My favorite is Toyon, or Heteromeles arbutifolia.
You’ve likely seen Toyon before, as it grows throughout most of California. Heteromeles has green leaves that range in shade and shape, and in early summer have showy branches of small white flowers. In winter, Toyon shrubs are easy to spot, as they are loaded with loose groups of bright red berries. Even after heavy rains and repeated frosts, Toyon stands well and holds it’s berries and leaves, looking just as happy and bright.
The berries contain high levels of cyanide compounds, but once these berries ferment, they become edible and are an important food source for resident and winter migrating birds. It’s quite fun to watch a flock of robins or finches appear to get drunk off the fermented berries.
Heteromeles doesn’t need to be relinquished only to the wild, as it’s a widely adapted shrub that is easy to grow in a garden setting. They are often used as large shrubs, but their habit can be varied. In the garden, they usually reach between 6-10 feet, but you’ll see them larger in the wild. They often are spindly the first few years and appear week, but once established, they are a foundation in the garden. They adapt to a range of soils, can take full sun to part shade, and are drought tolerant or accept the occasional water.
There are many different plants that offer bright red berries and winter interest to the yard, like Pyracantha, Nandina and Cotoneaster. I love Toyon because it’s a California native plant. In my area, Cotoneaster and Pyracantha, are invasives, easily reseeding and are found throughout wild spaces, crowding out natives. Avoid planting these to avoid continuing the spread.
Instead, plant your garden with Heteromeles! In the home landscape, Toyon can be pruned up to create a small tree or used as a focal point or, left to its natural shrubby form to create a hedgerow or wildlife border. Besides just being an attractive plant for any garden, it’s a fabulous shrub to have in a wildlife garden. It’s summer flowers provide nectar, and the winter berries provide food. Plant with elderberry, ceanothus, native rose, coffeeberry, currants and wildflowers for a beautiful and productive bird habitat.
Hollywood, in Southern California, was named after the abundance of shrubs growing in the city’s foothills. Those weren’t European holly, but actually Toyon. Toyon is an Ohlone word, the Native Americans that lived in the Santa Cruz and Bay Area. They, and other tribes, used Toyon for food and medicine. It is the only California native plant today that is commonly known by it’s Native American name.
I don’t have any Toyon in my Santa Rosa garden, only Cotoneaster and Pyracantha that has been spread by the birds. I had hoped to replace them with Toyon. In my new garden, I’m hoping to create a wildlife garden out my back door, not only to be a good steward to the land, but to give me an immediate escape from the city where I can connect with nature. Toyon will be the backbone shrub in my efforts to create a bird haven in my urban garden, providing both green year round and interest in the winter. I hope you’ll consider doing the same!