photo of berries on the DeAnza Trail

The DeAnza Trail is home to three berry-bearing shrubs in the Rose family, whose berries color up each year during the Holiday season. One of the shrubs, called Toyon, California Holly, or Christmas berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia), is native to California’s Coastal sage/scrub plant community. The city of Hollywood was reputedly named on behalf of the extensive stands in the surrounding hills. The other two species are non-natives that have escaped cultivation and have naturalized in the scrub community, and can be found along the trail. Pyracantha, or Firethorn, is from China and is widely planted for its winter berry display, and as a thorny barrier. It’s close relative, Cotoneaster, a genus of 300 species worldwide, hails from the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, North Africa and China. All three are used ornamentally in gardens, and provide great cover year round, and seasonal forage for birds.

The coastal sage/scrub community bisects into two geographical sub-regions at San Francisco Bay.  The northern scrub community ranges from just north of San Francisco Bay into Southern Oregon. The southern sage community runs along the coastal slope of the California, from the San Francisco Bay area into northern Baja.  This community is comprised of drought adapted shrubs and plants, often intermingling with plants of the Chaparral and Oak woodland communities. There is less than 15% of the original Coastal Sage Scrub community that remains undeveloped.  This plant population prefers a climate influenced by a cooling maritime persuasion.  Other native shrubs of this community, and found on the DeAnza Trail include California sage (Artemisia californica), Black sage (Salvia  mellifera), California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), and Golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum.

The Toyon, the only species of its genus, is one of the larger shrubs of the scrublands, growing from 6 to 15 feet tall.  In shady canyons it can grow to twice that height.  It is an evergreen shrub with bristly leaves two to four inches long.  It bears numerous small white flowers in early summer in dense clusters. Bees and butterflies find nectar sources at this time of year especially welcome. The red berries (technically pomes) mature in winter, and are a very important food source for birds (California quail, band-tailed pigeon, cedar waxwing), raccoons, coyotes and other birds and small mammals.  They are about ¼ inch in diameter and usually contain one or two small brown seeds.  Branches of the fruiting plant were once avidly collected and used as a substitute for the more traditional English holly (Ilex aquifolium) wreathes and various Christmas garlands. In the 1920’s it became so popular in the Los Angeles area that the state of California had to pass a law outlawing the collection of fruiting  branches found on public lands or on private land without written permission from the owner. This law still stands.


Pyracantha is used ornamentally for its prolific white flowers, orange and red berries and its ability to create a dense, impenetrable barrier, when planted as a hedge. Called Firethorn for its sharp thorns and the color of its berries, it provides many of the same benefits to wildlife as does the native. Its berries were its ticket out of the suburbs as birds have spread it to receptive areas.  It prefers the cooling coastal influences, which is the limiting factor in its invasive potential statewide. It is ranked by the California Invasive Pest Council (CALIPC) as a plant with limited threat, but with localized impact. Pyracantha berries are famous contributors to bird delinquency and public drunkenness, and the overconsumption of fermented berries has led to erratic behavior, trouble flying, and a rude awakening for many a young bird on a crispy winter morning.


Cotoneaster is a close relative of Pyracantha without the thorns and the stiff exterior. There are over 300 species worldwide, mostly shrubs.  Introduced into the horticultural trade in 1854, its pink flowers and prolific orange berries have insured its continued popularity into the present. Spread by birds, small mammals, manipulation by man or water movement, it is adapted to more climatic ecosystems than the other species and is listed as a moderate threat by CALIPC.  This means that it has the potential to have significant impacts on the ecosystem and on plant and animal communities. It usually takes advantages of disturbed places and exposed soil to get a foothold.  It does provide nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, and berries for the birds.


Three shrubs with similar characteristics have found homes on the DeAnza trail.  Coming by different routes they have all found compatible conditions for their continued existence. Bringing cover, food and sustenance for our animal friends, they provide humans with seasonal delights, as well as lessons on endurance and perseverance. 

Authored ©2012 by Steve Canepa — first published in December 2012 San Juan Star


Photos ©2012 by Judith Ogus