This time of the year is when our native plants come back to life with the recent rains. One plant that stands out this time of year amongst the chaparral is Toyon. Heteromeles arbutifolia, also know as California Christmas Berry. Located on the sunny side of hills it is usually growing along with manzanita and ceanothus. It's quite showy right now, which is why it's the only time people seem to notice it. In southern California people noticed the shrub growing through the hills and decided to name a town after it, "Hollywood". Apparently back in the 1920s, collecting toyon branches for Christmas became so popular in Los Angeles that the State of California passed a law forbidding collecting on public land or on any land not owned by the person picking the plant without the landowner's written permission. Not sure if that law is still in effect.
Being a native plant it has been utilized for centuries by man. The berries can be made into jellies and a tea from the leaves for calming the stomach. Toyon berries are acidic and astringent, and contain a small amount of cyanogenic glycosides, which break down intohydrocyanic acid on digestion. This is removed by mild cooking. Some berries, though mealy, astringent and acid when raw, were eaten fresh, or mashed into water to make a beverage. Later in time the settler's added sugar and made custard and wine.
Toyon is a great plant for the local wildlife. They are visited by butterflies, and have a mild, hawthorn-like scent. The fruit are eaten by birds, including mockingbirds, American robins, and cedar waxwings. Coyotes and bears also eat and disperse the berries.