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Winter berry rivals: Arbutus unedo and toyon.

For winter berries, two less common shrub-trees rival the traditional holly and pyracantha--Arbutus unedo and toyon.

Both plants are versatile. You can prune them lightly to form small-scale trees or let them billow into dense screens, informal hedges, or background shrubs. They won't adapt well to heavy shearing, however, so plant where they have room to mature--to 15 feet for shrubby shapes, 20 to 30 feet when pruned into tree forms.

These plants do best in mild-winter areas; for brief periods, arbutus can take about 10[degrees], toyon about 15[degrees]. Both need good drainage and infrequent summer watering. Full sun makes berries larger and brighter. In partial shade--especially inland--leaves are lighter and broader.

Fruit and flowers all at once

Remarkably fresh and green year-round, Arbutus unedo, shown above, has leathery leaves with red stems and corrugated gray bark that sometimes shreds away to reveal a smooth, cinnamon-colored trunk. By June, berries are about the size of large green peas. By late September, most have turned yellow and expanded to an inch across. By December, the tree is loaded with red and yellow berries and clusters of creamy white flowers.

Fully ripe berries look as good as strawberries but taste bland and pasty.

Young plants may grow 6 to 12 inches a year until they reach mature size of 15 to 20 feet. Two compact forms grow more slowly but flower and fruit more heavily at an early age: A.u. 'Compacta' reaches about 5 feet in 10 years. 'Elfin King' is still smaller, usually confined to 1-1/2 to 3 feet tall in containers; in the ground, it matures to about 5 feet tall.

Berries now, flowers in spring

Toyon is the berry that gave Hollywood its name; at one time these plants grew widely there and were known as California holly. Their native range stretches throughout the foothills of California, from Humboldt County to Baja, mainly in lightly wooded or chaparral areas from the coast to 3,500 feet.

Plants begin to flower and set berries about their third year. White flowers appear in flattened clusters in summer. The berries last from October until birds devour them in late winter or early spring; robins and cedar waxwings are particularly fond of them.

A little summer watering is beneficial, but too much water or fertilizer stimulates rank growth that is prone to disease. For the same reason, avoid heavy pruning. To shape the plant or to stimulate heavier berry production, clip lightly after berries finish but before flowers form in spring.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1985
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