Winter Interests: Heteromeles arbutifolia ‘Davis Gold’

January 24, 2020

Welcome back Devil Mountaineers!

The brilliantly bright displays of deciduous plants in fall can leave us dissatisfied with winter dormancy. But winter doesn’t need to be so dreary – the shift in seasons gives us a chance to appreciate other aspects of the landscape, exfoliating bark on bare trees, the form of a handsome shrub, or textures of evergreen foliage. If you find your landscape is still lacking, we’re bringing to you a NEW blog series: Winter Interests! All varieties discussed provide color and textures to gardens that fall short, the first highlight for this series is a quintessential California native, Heteromeles arbutifolia and the specific cultivar ‘Davis Gold.’

Heteromeles arbutifolia is classic California native that has a native range from the California coast to the Sierra Nevada foothills, and south to Baja California. The only California native species that continues to be known by a Native American name, Toyon, was named by the Ohlone and historically used to produce food, medicines, and other implements. This evergreen shrub or tree shares a close resemblance to European holly and its presence throughout the hills of Southern California gave rise to the name ‘Hollywood,’ the world-renowned film capital; in addition, the widely recognized showy red berries of Toyon are often used in North American holiday decoration. Heteromeles ‘Davis Gold’ is a cultivar of this native icon and is treasured for its ability to provide remarkable color and interest in a winter landscape.


-Heteromeles arbutifolia-
(Miguel Vieira from Walnut Creek, CA, USA – Toyon on Los Vaqueros Watershed Miwok Trail [CC BY 2.0])


Toyon, also called Christmas berry is drought tolerant and a versatile grower, tolerant of most soil types and levels of sun exposure, though performing best in full sun. Toyon forms a dense shrub 8 – 15 tall and wide or multi-trunked tree to about 25 feet tall and almost as wide, and bears rosettes of glossy, deep green leaves that are finely serrated along the edges. Arrival of summer prompts a profusion of flat-topped clusters of small white flowers, followed in fall and into winter by an abundance of remarkably bright, golden yellow berries (the straight species Heteromeles arbutifolia typically has scarlet red berries, but occasionally presents orange or yellow).


(Stan Shebs [CC BY-SA 3.0])


-Berries of Heteromeles arb. ‘Davis Gold’-
(taken at Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery, San Ramon)


Toyon improves under cultivation, if trimmed to show a good deal of year-old wood it will produce even more berries than specimens left to grow naturally. Although drought tolerant, Davis Gold Toyon accepts some supplemental irrigation and thrives most beautifully with light moisture. This cultivar of Toyon is reported to be more disease resistant than the parent species, but it is still vulnerable to fireblight. A valuable choice for a privacy screen or bank planting as erosion control, Toyon’s presence in the garden is irresistible to local birds and butterflies as an essential source of food.


(Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz – Own work [CC BY-SA 4.0])


At the nursery, we carry both the straight species Heteromeles arbutifolia and the ‘Davis Gold’ cultivar. For Heteromeles arbutifolia we carry 1g, 5g, 15g, 24″, and 36″ boxes. For the ‘Davis Gold‘ cultivar, we carry 1g, 5g, 15g, and 24″ boxes.


(‘Davis Gold’ taken at Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery, San Ramon)


Companion plants for Heteromeles: Aesculus californica (California Buckeye), Arctostaphylos (Manzantia), Rhamnus (Coffeeberry), Cercis (Redbud), Holodiscus (Holodiscus)



Bornstein, Carol, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien. California Native Plants for the Garden. Los Olivos, CA: Cachuma Press, 2014.

“Heteromeles arbutifolia – Toyon.” UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County. Last modified September, 2019.–Toyon/.

“Heteromeles arbutifolia – Toyon.” Plant of the Month – Heteromeles arbutifolia – Toyon, Christmas berry. Last modified November, 2010.

Norris Brenzel, Kathleen, ed. The New Sunset Western Garden Book. 9th ed. New York: Time Home Entertainment, 2012.