Harvesting Toyon

Part of my appreciation of our native desert plants comes from the indispensable gifts that these plants have provided for millennia to humans, wildlife, birds, insects, soils, and the whole ecosystem. Indigenous peoples have long valued and used native desert plants for food, medicine, healing, shelter, clothing, utensils, and ceremony.

Toyon, or Christmas Berry, produces clusters of bright red berries that persist all winter, providing perfect holiday decorations for mantels, wreaths, and centerpieces. Native Americans used the cooked or dried berries for food and beverages, and used the leaves for dyes and paints. Today Toyon berries are used to make fruit leathers, cider, cooking spice, and a cranberry-like sauce. Read on for how to prepare these abundant fruits to enjoy at your table.


Part of my appreciation of our native desert plants comes from the indispensable gifts that these plants have provided for millennia to humans, wildlife, birds, insects, soils, and the whole ecosystem. Indigenous peoples have long valued and used native desert plants for food, medicine, healing, shelter, clothing, utensils, and ceremony.

I would like to share some of these uses that we can incorporate into our lives today, but this comes with a responsibility to reciprocate thoughtful care and stewardship for these tenacious but fragile desert dwellers. I always encourage respectful harvesting and mindful use of our native plants (join one of our workshops to find out how! We prepare these native plants for you to taste, drink, smell, touch, and experience).

I also strongly encourage the purchase and planting of native plants in our own yards, especially if we want to harvest their gifts regularly (see our section, Native Plant Nurseries, for southwest nurseries that sell California native plants). By incorporating plants into our yards that are native to our own region, we also help sustain native butterflies, native bees, birds, wildlife, and migration corridors for all of them, as well as reducing our dependence on added water, fertilizers, and pesticides in our yards. Growing plants that thrive in our climate also reduces our time and cost to maintain our yard). It is truly a win-win scenario.


Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries are ready for harvest from late fall into winter when they turn bright red. We have been picking clusters from our yard the past few weeks to use for holiday arrangements, and are sharing them with friends for their decorations. We still have plenty to share with the birds who also love the berries. After the holiday decor comes down, save the berries to dry and use as a cooking spice or to make toyon cider. Toyon is a member of the rose family, and like its cousin, the apple, its fruits are technically considered pomes, not berries. For our discussion here, however, we will call toyon fruits “berries.” They are either bland or bitter when fresh, but are transformed into sweeter fruits when either dried or cooked.

Some traditional uses for the berries include:

Toyon fruit leather ~ Fresh berries are simmered, then blended in a food processor, sweetened, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, then spread thin onto parchment and dehydrated. Here is the recipe from the “Living Wild Project” book. I make this and it is very tasty.

  • Collect berries in winter
  • 4 cups fresh Toyon berries
  • ½ cup water
  • Lemon juice
  • Manzanita sugar, agave or honey
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg


  • Rinse berries and remove stems.
  • Place in a pot and cover with water.
  • Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Add desired sweetener, lemon juice and spices to taste.
  • Cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Blend through food processor or blender until smooth.
  • Pour a thin layer about 1/8 ” thick onto a baking sheet.
  • Let dry in the oven, food dehydrator, or sun, covered with cheesecloth.
  • Cut into strips.

Toyon cider ~ Cover dried berries with water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes while crushing them; strain the berries out and sweetening the “cider” with honey or agave. Both the color and aroma of Toyon cider are very pleasant. Fresh berries can be used, but dried berries are much sweeter.

Toyon “wild berry” sauce ~ Fresh berries are simmered in apple juice, sweetened with honey, thickened with arrowroot, and spiced with orange zest. Here is another recipe from the “Living Wild” book: 

  • Collect berries in winter
  • 1 cup fresh Toyon berries (stems removed)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup apple juice
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1 tbsp arrowroot or organic cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp grated orange zest


  • Mix berries, apple juice and honey in a pan and bring to a boil.
  • Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Stir arrowroot or cornstarch into 2 tbsp apple juice.
  • Pour into berries and stir constantly while bringing to a boil.
  • Remove from heat and add orange zest.
  • Allow to cool before serving.
  • Store in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Toyon berry spice ~ Grind dried berries into a fine powder, then combine with other flours or use as a spice for a tangy, fruity taste.

Winter bouquet including Toyon berries, strawberry tree fruit, sugarbush, and California juniper.

Toyon is a perfect plant for landscaping as well as for decor and food. It is fire-retardant and extremely drought-tolerant, which makes it a smart choice for southwest yards. Toyon creates a beautiful evergreen windbreak, screen, or hedge when left as a multi-branched shrub, reaching heights of 8-12 feet tall. It can be trained, however, into a large tree-like specimen by trimming side branches and leaving just one to several main upright branches; older plants are capable of reaching heights 25-30 feet tall. Songbirds are attracted to this “giving” plant. We encourage you to invite this valuable and versatile native plant into your own yard.

Clockwise photos from upper left:

  1. Toyon shrub in fruit
  2. Toyon flowers 
  3. Toyon ripe berries ready to harvest
  4. Toyon berries harvested
  5. Toyon berries simmering in water
  6. Toyon fruit leather drying

Toyon plant parts traditionally used:

  • Fruits – Used dried or cooked to eat; dried to make a beverage
  • Leaves – Soaked in potash overnight; alum added, then dried and ground for red paint

Robin will help you plan YOUR yard — including identifying
your plants…both native and exotic,
and recommending new problem-solving plants and ideas,
from pathways to yard design!


Do you long to know more about your own yard and property? Would you like to walk through your yard/property alongside a plant expert to identify any plants you don’t know, both native and non-native, and get ideas for other plants that would thrive in your yard? Would you like to get suggestions about planting hardy, drought-tolerant, attractive, desert-friendly plants, including trees, shrubs, and perennials that can help you reach your highest dreams for your property?


Landscape planning with views in mind

Landscape planning with views in mind

If you want to achieve your goals for enjoying your yard to its fullest potential without having to contract an expensive landscape architect, consider inviting botanist Robin Kobaly into your yard for a personal consultation. Robin will help you appreciate and identify what you already have, and suggest what plants, pathways, or other structures you could incorporate into your landscape to solve issues you may have with landscaping, views, privacy, wind, hot walls, soil challenges, or problem spots. Robin will share easy, concrete steps to help you successfully plan out a functional, sustainable, low-maintenance, attractive landscape plan to empower you in creating your own dream yard – yourself!


Robin identifies yard plants, and shares traditional and modern uses of native plants.




Robin will bring plenty of supporting materials to help you envision your yard’s potential, and supply photos of suggested plants to fit your yard’s needs. She will suggest a variety of methods that are easy but effective in achieving a landscape plan that suits your individual desires, personality, passions, moods, entertainment essentials, as well as considerations if you have children or pets, while providing suggestions to help you solve persistent problems on your property. Robin also can share homemade remedies that you can easily make yourself to solve common garden problems such as powdery mildew, insect attacks, rabbit munching, etc.




Imagining a new backyard plan


Your yard consultation will normally last 2-3 hours, during which Robin will answer your questions, offer ideas about how to plan your yard to achieve your dreams and desires, present ideas about what plants would do well on your property to achieve those goals (and where you can buy those plants), and give you valuable tips on irrigation for success. She will share secrets about how you can discover your best approach for getting the most enjoyment from your yard by knowing what to focus on to achieve great results. Robin will also identify all the native plants you may have on your property, and introduce you to some of your native plants’ special qualities and uses that you can incorporate into your own life.



Making yard plans with Robin

Creating yard plans with Robin

The fee for this personal yard consultation is based on yard acreage and distance for travel. Please call for a quote for this service on your yard or property. We are excited to meet you and your yard, and to discuss and brainstorm your dreams and goals for your yard. We love helping people get excited about reaching the potential of their yard. This is a very fun experience for both of us!

 To discuss your personal yard consultation, call (760) 363-1166 or email for a quote and to schedule a fun journey into your own yard through the eyes and experience of a seasoned botanist, Robin Kobaly.


Why to Leave Your Leaves

Fall leaves_Songbird Cottage porch_2038

Fall leaves descend on Songbird Cottage porch

Every fall, as our trees and shrubs begin preparing for their winter sleep, we watch leaves morph from green to yellow (or orange on our Basketbush Sumac and Japanese Maple). Soon after, each leaf lets go of its supporting branch and drifts down to earth. Piles of fallen leaves collect along our pathways, porches, and patios. But we don’t see this annual event as more work to do in the yard — because we never move the leaves any farther away than off the porches and decks with a broom. We know how valuable these leaves are to the health of our yard, and we are excited to watch the cycle of rebirth they are entering.

Fall color on California native shrub, Basketbush Sumac

Fall color on California native shrub, Basketbush Sumac

Plants that go dormant in winter are closing down the sugar factories before frost would freeze the water inside each leaf, which would cause cells to burst and lose all the hard-won nutrients inside — not to mention killing the leaf tissues. After sending all the precious sugars and nutrients from leaves down into the roots for winter storage, the branches snip off each leaf with a special acid, closing the door on the scar with a cork-like covering. You might think the role of the leaf is over, but it still has a vital task to perform for the plant — and for the landscape around it.

Just like a warm blanket against the cold, fallen leaves help to insulate the ground around plant roots from chilling weather. As the leaves slowly decompose, they liberate their remaining nutrients into the soil, while providing food for many beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, and a host of tiny organisms. This team of soil creatures transforms the decaying leaves’ nutrients into usable food waiting for roots when their dormant plants wake up in spring. These soil magicians ultimately convert the dead leaves into valuable mulch, which helps to retain precious moisture in the soil throughout the coming dry seasons.

Both evergreen and deciduous plants benefit from a cover of fallen leaves blanketing the ground.

Both evergreen and deciduous plants benefit from a cover of fallen leaves blanketing the ground.

Fall leaves are an asset to future generations of your yard plants.

Fall leaves are an asset to future generations of your yard plants.

This important saga in the life-cycle of fallen leaves not only benefits deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves in winter), it also benefits nearby evergreen plants. Even though evergreens have mechanisms to withstand freezing (including a plant version of anti-freeze), evergreens profit from the work that deciduous leaves have accomplished in their death: contributing fertilizing nutrients, soil-insulating properties, and soil-moisture-saving paybacks. Evergreen and deciduous plants alike also benefit from the weed-deterring job carried out by a blanket of fallen leaves.

So the next time you think about hauling off your piles of fall leaves, remember the role these heroic leaves still want to achieve in your yard. Put down your rake, and enjoy the rhythm of the leaves.





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