A Friend We Know
It’s that time of year to hear the carol: “Have a holly, jolly Christmas; And when you walk down the street, Say ‘Hello’ to friends you know, and everyone you meet.”
And speaking of friends, across Southern California’s Native American homelands, our own native California Holly, also called Toyon, and also, Christmas Berry, is sporting its bright red berries that ripen every November and December and decorate our canyons and brushy slopes.
The Latin name is Heteromeles arbutifolia for this member of the rose family.
The Cahuilla name is Ashwet. In varied Chumash dialects it’s Qwe', according to Jan Timbrook in her 2007 classic, Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California.
Native toyon berries in California (Photo by Little T889 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
“The Chumash said that raw toyon fruit tends to stick in the throat. They sampled it for sweetness as they picked and often did the first step of preparing right where they got it,” Jan Timbrook explains.1 “Most commonly, they toasted the fresh toyon berries in a steatite olla over hot coals, stirring frequently. This did not take very long, just until the berries were good and hot.
“According to Candelaria Valenzuela, these ‘hollyberries’ were roasted until they turned white (Blackburn 1963:144). Some people just spread the berries in the hot sun until they turned black and then mashed them. After either of these preliminary treatments, the fruit was placed in an old water basket or some other vessel and allowed to stand ‘until it was good and ready.’
“Some of [ethnologist J.P.] Harrington’s consultants said this took about three days, others five or ten. After that, the toyon fruit was soft and sweet and could be eaten without any further preparation, ‘as one would eat beans or bread.,’ sometimes along with toasted, ground chia. The Chumash never boiled toyon.”
Toyon’s hard wood was useful for making tools such as awls for weaving baskets, hooks for fishing, and arrows. Poles made of toyon held important roles in Chumash ceremonies.
Another of our favorite native-plant resources, the 1972 book by Katherine Siva Saubel and Lowell Bean, Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian usage and knowledge of plants , says that in older times, the Cahuilla people ate the berries both cooked and raw. (Page 77).
(Note: Please don’t pick berries from toyon without permission.)
The book cites ethnobotanist Edward K. Balls (1965:36-37), who “reported that the California Indians often cooked the berries by roasting them in the fire or tossing them on hot coals, which removed the slightly bitter taste.”
The birds don’t waste any time in preparation. Bluebirds have been gobbling the Christmas berries on the toyon bushes of Ernest and June Siva, leaders of Dorothy Ramon Learning Center.
Here, in front of one of their Christmas Berry bushes, June Siva shares why the holly is one of their favorite native shrubs:
You’re Invited to our Open House!
Ernest Siva (Cahuilla-Serrano), president of Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. (June Siva photo)
Hope you can join the fun at Dorothy Ramon Learning Center’s open house from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, December 17, 2022, at 127 N. San Gorgonio Ave., Banning.
We’ll be sharing our beautiful art display in our Gathering Hall, along with music, cultural stories, and more. We’ll have a fun game for kids and their families and a little dragonfly crafts.
Stay for the parade! At 5 p.m., the city’s Christmas lights parade will start on Ramsey Street nearby and make its way along Ramsey Street to city hall (close to the Center) for more festivities.
Thanks for supporting our 501c3 nonprofit Dorothy Ramon Learning Center and joining us in saving and sharing Southern California’s Native American cultures, languages, history, and traditional arts
.News from Dorothy Ramon Learning Center welcomes your EMAIL. Thanks from Center leaders Ernest and June Siva, and Editor Pat Murkland, who wrote this, December 14, 2022.
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Jan Timbrook, Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California. copyright 2007, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Published by the museum and Heyday Books, Berkeley, California. pp 91-94