Friday, January 11, 2013

Christmasberry, A Holiday Migration to California

Christmasberry or Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Like most people, Katrina and I wanted to spend the Holidays with family and this year we arranged to enjoy Christmas with my sister Rachel, and her growing family, then continue southward to Morro Bay to meet the rest of my family, and then to San Diego and Atwater to visit both sets of Katrina’s grandparents early in the New Year. Flying is far too restrictive for such complicated travel arrangements, and besides, we wanted to explore wild foods, bird watch, camp, and adventure along the way.

Armillaria sp. in Eugene, OR

We started our trip with our sights set for Northern California, hoping to cross the Siskiyous before darkness and falling temperatures would deteriorate the driving conditions. A brief stop in Eugene to visit one of Christian’s friends was the only stop we made aside from necessary pit stops. 

A fully laden Christmasberry in Northern California
The passes had recently been cleared of the deep snows from the day before. Near Redding, we began to see the bright red fruits of Christmasberry or Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) along the snow carpeted hillsides. Toyon has a native range restricted to California and Baha growing along the coast from Humboldt County, CA southward to San Quinta, Mexico and then in isolated populations all the way to Cabo San Lucas; inland populations are found in the foothills near Lake Shasta southward along the periphery of the Central Valley to Bakersfield. It prefers oak/pine woodlands, oak savannahs, chaparral, and especially the coastal sage scrub community. It is commonly planted in street medians and hedges in California.

This large Toyon was about 7" in diameter and was planted near San Diego
Toyon is a medium to large shrub in the Rose Family that can reach 25 feet in height. The waxy evergreen leaves are 2.5-4 inches long, 1-2 inches wide, and have subtle to prominent holly-like serrations along the margin; the upper surface is dark green and the under surface whitish green. Young twigs are colorful and range from pink to reddish green or yellowish green, but mature to a dark grayish brown after several years. Small white flowers arise in early summer in crowded corymbs. The fruits are green when young and mature to a bright red in the late fall and endure through the winter (hence the common name Christmasberry). The fruits are typically 3/16 to 3/8 of an inch in diameter.

Toyon berries are traditionally eaten by many Native Americans in California. Danielle Moerman reports in Native American Ethnobotany that Toyon fruit are a traditional food of the, Karuk, Yurok, Yuki, Nisenan, Pomo, Ohlone (Costanoan), Payomkowishum (Luiseño), Iviatim (Cahuilla), and Kumeyaay (Tipai, Diegueño), and probably others with access to the fruit. Traditional preparations include eating the berries fresh, parched in ashes, roasted over a fire, wilted next to the fire, boiled, or dried. In Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County, Victor Chestnut (1902, pg 355-6) writes that Toyon berries are most commonly eaten by “roasting a bunch of them over red-hot coals, or by tossing them about with hot coals in a basket.” He goes on to describe how cooking changes the flavor from a “disagreeable acidic taste to a sweet one.” Chestnut provides the following names for the bush: mil-kö’-ché (Yuki), but’’-zä-zä (Pomo), and kī-yï’ (Yokia).

The immature fruit pulp contains cyanogen (a cyanide-producing compound) and should not be eaten, but the mature fruit pulp has little to no toxicity (see Burrows and Tyri, Toxic Plants of North America, pg 1081). Seeds in the mature fruit contain cyanogenic compounds, and should be spit out of the raw fruit. Since cyanogen volatizes at low temperatures, it is advisable to dry or cook Toyon fruit before eating. The leaves were used to treat stomachaches and dress infected wounds by a few Californian tribes, however, the leaves have high cyanogenic levels (especially in the late winter and spring) and expert advice should be sought before attempting these preparations.

Note the leaves and berries that resemble Holly
Toyon leaves and fruit resemble holly and are frequently used to make wreaths and other Christmas decorations. From the frigid mountain snows near Shasta to the sunny shores of San Diego, the ripe red berries of Toyon decorated much of the rest of our holiday season journey.

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