Meet Toyon: The Official City Plant of Los Angeles

Have you noticed red berries around southern California lately? Chances are they might belong to heteromeles arbutifolia, a California-native shrub also known as toyon or “California holly.”

Toyon — a perennial found throughout western California and the Sierra foothills — has dark green, toothed leaves and white flowers in the summer that yield to red berries in the fall and winter. Its beauty and quick grow time (reaching up to 10 feet tall in just three years) make this plant a great native shrub to plant around your home.

The origins of Toyon’s nickname(s)

Toyon has played a significant role in California’s history throughout the years, bringing about many nicknames for the plant. Though the most common name “toyon” is thought to be a Spanish alteration of the plant’s Ohlone name (“totcon”), Indigenous peoples around California have given the plant many names. It has also more recently been referred to as “California holly” or even “Christmas berry” due to it’s similar appearance to English holly in the winter months.

Was Hollywood named after the toyon plant?

A fun “fact” you may have heard is that the toyon plant, or California holly, is the namesake of the city of Hollywood. While it’s suggested that this could be the case due to the plant’s prominence in the region, the myth has never been proven, adding to toyon’s mystique.

Are toyon berries edible?

Yes…and no. While birds, coyotes, and bears sometimes snack on the berries, they contain cyanide and are toxic to humans; however, cooking the berries removes the cyanide and transforms the toyon plan into a tasty treat that you can enjoy (keep in mind that California state law prohibits the collection of wild toyon branches).

Planting and maintenance

Like many California-native plants, toyon is drought-tolerant and can survive with normal rainfall and the occasional deep watering in the summer. While the plant tolerates partial shade, it thrives in full sun. Prune this shrub in the late winter, but feel free to pinch throughout the year for a denser shrub!

Looking for more California-native plants? Check out TreePeople’s native plant guide for an extensive list of plants in our region!