Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a very important plant for the overall healthy habitat of Griffith Park. The plant is commonly seen growing wild throughout the Santa Monica Mountains range — and it’s found throughout Griffith Park.
Many people know the plant by the common name of “Holly Berry” because the leaves and the red fruit that mature during the fall are reminiscent of the European Holly. The name Hollywoodland, which later became Hollywood, was given to this area of Griffith Park by early settlers who saw the green plant with red berries growing profusely on the surrounding hills.
Throughout the year, toyon offers many important benefits to wildlife that live in Griffith Park. Since toyon can grow to be a large shrub or a small tree, the plant provides a protected area from animals such as coyotes to roost or build homes safe from ground predators.
Field observations in the summer find toyon plants in full bloom. The plant produces a large amount of small white blossoms that offer food and drink to insects such as butterflies, bees and beetles during the hot summer days. The plants’ survival relies on the insects: insects visit the blossoms looking for nectar, and carry away pollen which is distributed to other toyon plants and thus producing fruits.
During the fall season, after several months of growing and maturity, toyon fruits change color from green to red; it’s a signal to birds and other larger animals that a meal is ready for them. It is also during the fall that the hills of Griffith Park are adorned with striking red colors reflecting the many toyon plants growing in the hills of the Park.
Toyon fruit looks like a tiny apple with many small seeds. Griffith Park wildlife eat the entire fruit. Once consumed, the fruit is digested and the intestinal track extracts the calories and nutrients from the fruit’s fleshy portions. Seeds safely go through the animal’s intestinal track and will later be dropped elsewhere in the Park where they can germinate, grow and become a new toyon plant.
Because toyon is one of the few plants that ripen its fruits during the fall, when many of the other plants are barely waking up, having a healthy population of toyon to sustain wildlife is vital for the ecosystem of the Park.
~Jorge Ochoa is an associate professor of horticulture at Long Beach City College.
He often leads FoGP walks through Griffith Park and occasional lectures on fauna found throughout the Park.