If you don't live in Los Angeles—and even if you do—you're probably surprised when I tell you that I began writing about plants when I moved here. I know, you think, there are lots of palms, sure, but aren't so many of them neon? Yes, there's a bit of flourescent greenery, but the city's brightest colors are in the bougainvillea. Los Angeles may have been built with tinsel, concrete, silicone, and celluloid, but a world of plants grows in the spaces between. It's about time, then, that Los Angeles adopted an official city plant. Even better, the honor went to a ubiquitous red-berried native shrub, the one that put the "holly" in Hollywood.
Last month, Los Angeles City Council named toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) as the city's official plant. The drought-tolerant shrub is known for its red berries that decorate the fall chaparral—in a climate with relatively few seasonal signifiers, the plant is a rare harbinger of winter—and give it the nicknames Christmas berry and California holly. In the 1920s, gathering red-berried branches for holiday decor was so fashionable that the state issued a law banning collection on public land. It grows abundantly on the city's hills and canyons—most famously, on a particular group of hills that early European settlers would name "Hollywood," after the red berries that covered them.
The California holly shrub is a perfect metaphor for Los Angeles—adaptable and very tough.
The shrub is considered a perfect metaphor for the city—adaptable, very tough, with an "indomitable spirit," says Lili Payne, horticulturalist with the Theodore Payne Society, in this KRCW interview. Its leathery leaves retain moisture in the summer and its roots travel deep in the soil for water in the dry months. The toyon is thus valued for its erosion control—in a landscape prone to landslide, these extensive roots systems are "a reason the city hills don't fall into the ocean," says Singer. Toyon is good in the hills, and also in the city—it is one of the native shrubs that will be planted on the grounds of City Hall, which are in need of some new plants after several months of Occupy demonstrators last fall.
The shrub has also evolved a brilliant defense mechanism that assists its seed dispersal. During the ripening months, the toyon's berries are poisonous—a peck from a hungry bird will release a toxic cyanide gas. This functions to deter foragers until the berries are ripe, and can be dispersed with mature, viable seeds. As the berries ripen in mid-December, the plant withdraws the toxic chemicals. Now safe for seed dispersal agents, the billboard-red berries are a formal call to birds—especially robins, mockingbirds, and cedar waxwings, who flock to the toyon for the red-berried holiday season.
Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.