Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is apparently the plant that Hollywood was named after. No one knows for sure, but when the settlers came to the Hollywood area, they apparently thought this shrub/small tree looked like the holly plants back home in Europe….hence the name Hollywood.
Toyon is also called Christmas Berry because its little red berries usually ripen right around Christmas time. Because of their beautiful oblong, serrated, and glossy leaves, which stay green all year round, and those beautiful red berries, everyone in the Hollywood Hills wanted them as Christmas decorations. They began to become extremely over-harvested until the 1920’s, when Ms. Bertha Rice and her son Roland campaigned to protect them. They published a small book, with the final chapter devoted entirely to Toyon, which eventually led to a law making it illegal to harvest wild plants.
We certainly don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, but we also don’t want to forget how to use this plant in a sustainable way. The California Native Plant Society has a nice write-up on the toyon.
Make sure the berries are fully ripe when you harvest them, as they have a natural defense mechanism of releasing toxic cyanide gas if nibbled on too early. Being that everyone is drooling at the mouth, just waiting for them to ripen, this chemical is present until they ripen to a bright reddish/orange. Once the berries have ripened, the cyanide retracts back into the trunk and poses no danger to the hungry omnivore.
To harvest, bring a paper bag and a pair of clippers. Clip them as shown in the picture. Can’t you just see the ladies of Hollywood climbing up on ladders in thier daisy dukes, to harvest wild food growing in their own backyards. A new Hollywood health craze I hope to see some day!
Judging by my own experience with eating Toyon seeds, they release a slight almond flavor and as you chew them, they become almost like a chewing gum. IT’S GREAT!