Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Toyon

There is a special reward for planting native plants: watching habitat being restored in front of your eyes.

Five years ago I planted a 3 gallon toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). It started out just 2 foot tall. Today it is about 8 foot tall. The dark green leaves are prickly and in late autumn its berries ripen to a brilliant red. It's no wonder European immigrants to California were reminded of holly and called it "California holly" or "Christmas berry."

In fact this is the holly that gave the name to "Hollywoodland" and therefore Hollywood. (Decorating with toyon)

The native Chumash, Ohlone and other coastal peoples in California roasted or dried the berries and ate them. They also used the strong, rot-resistant wood for a variety of implements and ceremonial markers. But people weren't the only species that depended on the toyon. Numerous animals eat the berries as well, rodents, foxes (including the endangered island fox), probably the extinct southwestern grizzly bear did as well. A wide range of birds also look for this easy-to-spot, chaparral delicacy. 

Sunday morning I watched the hermit thrush picking one red berry at a time and swallowing it down. A hermit thrush has been coming to my yard every winter for the last seven years. I believe it is the same bird, but I don't absolutely know that for sure. For the second year in a row it arrived with a friend. I wonder if the thrush has been waiting for the toyon to grow up and become the beautiful berry-producing plant that it is now?

One thing is for sure, the toyon has created a valuable source of winter food for the hermit thrush, cedar waxwings and other berry-eating birds. The hermit thrush seemed to be thankful for its bountiful meal and I was heartened that I had made a positive difference for the local wildlife and migratory birds.

Now is the season in California to plant native plants, they are the Foundation of Habitat. Plant a few natives and help make a positive difference.

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