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The Christmas berry is an evergreen shrub that has glossy green leaves and deeply colored, small red berries. The plant is sometimes referred to as the California holly, though the leaves of the Christmas berry are round. The berries mature from a green into deep and vibrant reds with occasional oranges, and grow in large clusters. The berries are quite tannic and contain cyanogenic glucosides which are poisonous if eaten in large quantities. The compound is vaporized when cooked and the berries have a flavor similar to cherries.
Christmas berries ripen at the end of the fall and remain through the winter months.
Christmas berries are known to the scientific world as Heteromeles arbutifolia. It is the only plant native to California that is still known by its Native American name: “Toyon,” which is what the Oholone tribe called the shrub. The Oholone and other native California tribes used its berries and leaves for medicinal and food purposes. Toyon is in the same sub-family as apples, pears and quinces.
The Christmas berry is most often grown for ornamental purposes, though the berries are edible. The berries must be cooked to release the toxic compounds. Add sugar to cooked berries to make jam.
Native Californians used the leaves of the Christmas berry for medicinal teas to treat stomach aches. They also dried the leaves and stored them to make into porridge. Coastal tribes wilted the berries in hot ash and ate them by the handful.
Toyon, or Christmas berry, can be found growing in the coastal shrub and amid the inland chaparral of California. This member of the Rose family got its name from its resemblance to the English holly. When the first Europeans settled in California, they istook the red-berried evergreen shrub for the traditional Christmas holly and the name stuck. It is said that Hollywood was named for the Toyon, which grew in abundance on the hill which bears the name. The popularity of using the berries for décor dung the Christmas holidays resulted in the passing of a law in the 1920’s to limit over-picking.
Recipes that include Christmas Berries. One is easiest, three is harder.
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