Gardener’s Notebook

Meet a Local Wild Cherry: Prunus ilicifolia

Prunus ilicifolia aka hollyleaf cherry foliage and dried fruit. Photos: Joshua Burman Thayer

On a recent stroll along the north bank of the Carquinez Strait in Benicia, I came upon a California native plant loaded up with edible cherry-like fruits. Prunus ilicifolia, aka hollyleaf cherry, evergreen cherry, or simply California wild cherry, was called islay by California’s Salinan tribespeople. The Salinans were among many native peoples who appreciated this plant’s fruits as a reliable and storable food source.

Up and down the California coastline, from the Bay Area south to central Baja California, this drought-tolerant shrubby tree forms a contiguous patchwork of hedge-like thickets. The dark purple fruits, which ripen in September and October, are similar in size to the orchard-grown cherries we enjoy in May and June. 

Here in the Bay Area, we have two known naturally occurring patches of Prunus ilicifolia: the one I stumbled upon and another in Santa Clara County on the eastern flanks of Mount Umunhum (the fourth-highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains). But it pops up elsewhere, since the plant is also appreciated as a natural-looking member of a manicured landscape, where it can work nicely as an informal hedge growing up to 15 feet tall. It tolerates dry slopes and also offers its lovely harvest of fall fruit.

Prunus ilicifolia. Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1287087 No machine-readable author provided. Noah Elhardt assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 2.5

If you already have this plant growing in your yard or are lucky enough to forage some of its fresh fruit, you can eat it as is or pit and then mash the fruit’s flesh, spreading in the sunshine until it dries into a slab that can be rolled into a natural, native-plant version of a fruit roll-up.

Native peoples also utilized the seed kernels as a nutritious storable “grain.” Much like with acorns, the seeds have to be processed properly to be consumable. According to Jan Timbrook, author of Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People (Heyday Books, Berkeley, 2007), the Chumash boiled the pits by dropping them along with hot stones into water-filled baskets. They spread the boiled pits out in the sun to dry for a couple days, cracked them open, and stored the inner kernels for future use. Preparing them for eating involved further boiling to remove toxic substances. The Chumash mashed the kernels and formed them into cakes called shukuyash.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a San Francisco Bay Area ecological and permaculture landscape designer and consultant specializing in dry-land landscape design. He can be reached at 510.332.2809, nativesungardens.com

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