Words On Wellness • Toyon Berries
In the darkest time of winter, people enjoy putting up holiday decorations to keep the mood bright and celebrate the coming light. Nature also adds to the festivities with Toyon berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia), also referred to as Christmas berry or California holly (the bush that gave Hollywood its name). The evergreen serrated leaves and bright red berries called ‘pomes’ lend themselves well for Christmas wreaths and other decorations. Toyon grows along the length of California coast from dry chaparral to oak and scrub. It makes an excellent drought tolerant native addition to your garden. In the rose family and closely related to apple, it wears white flowers in early summer followed by clumps of bright red pomes/berries in winter, that have a mealy, sour apple taste.
Flowers from toyon are pollinated by local butterflies, while fruits serve as winter diners for berry-eating birds. They attract migrants, bringing life and movement to a usually damp, gray season. Robins come and hang out in flocks, yelping and elbowing each other around the table. A mockingbird might hold its territory all year, sometimes muttering its spring songs in December, if its territory includes toyon. The quiet hermit thrush and boisterous flocks of cedar waxwings will also join the scene.
It has been an important indigenous food for thousands of years, especially to avoid winter starvation. The berries can be nibbled raw (spit out the seeds), but are acidic and astringent and contain small amounts of cyanide, which is removed by mild cooking, roasting or drying. Therefore Kashaya Pomo wilted berries in hot ashes, then winnowed them in a basket plate. The berries (budu) were ready for eating by the handful without further cooking. They were also dried and stored and later cooked into porridge or pancakes. Tea from the leaves was used by women to regulate menses and a decoction of the bark and leaves made an effective wound wash. In the last century, settlers also used the berries by adding sugar to make jelly, custard and wine.
In the 1920’s, so many Californians were cutting toyon to make decorative wreaths that a statewide protection was placed, making it unlawful to cut branches off toyon on public lands! However a popular non-native garden shrub, cotoneaster, also in the rose family, provides copious red winter berries perfect for wreath-making.
Karin is at http://rainbowconnection.net.