[ HETEROMELES ARBUTIFOLIA ]
In the weeks leading up to the holidays, the brilliantly attired "Christmas berry" puts on a festive display. As the berries ripen during late fall on the 15-foot-high toyon, they change from green to orange. By mid-December, the large clumps have reached a startling shade of red -- a shout for attention. Though they're appreciated by humans, the call goes out to robins, waxwings and other birds that have been waiting for just the right moment to harvest the bounteous feast. During the ripening period, the berries lock two chemicals in separate plant tissues. Even a tentative nibble from a curious bird can mix the compounds and produce a highly toxic cyanide gas. Upon ripening, however, the plant withdraws the chemicals from the berries so birds can disperse the entire crop almost overnight.
California's Mediterranean climate imposes harsh constraints on plants -- cold, short winter days and dry summers curtail photosynthetic activity that allows plants to feed themselves. Toyon is one of several species that conserve energy by holding onto their leaves year-round.
A native shrub of California chaparral, toyon is recognized by its dark green, shiny leaves with toothed edges.