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Prunus ilicifolia (Common names: “Hollyleaf cherry“,[1]Evergreen cherry“;[2]Islay” – Salinan Native American[3]) is an evergreen shrub[1] to tree, producing edible cherries, with shiny and spiny toothed leaves[1] similar in appearance to holly. It is native to the chaparral areas of coastal California and northern Baja California,[2][4] as well as the desert chaparral areas of the Mojave desert.

Holly-leaved cherry grows 8 to 30 feet tall, with thick, alternate leaves 1 to 2 inches in length.[1] It has small white flowers growing in clusters, similar in appearance to most members of the rose family, Rosaceae, flowering from March to May.[1] The flowers are terminal on small stalks, with the youngest at the cluster center. The purple to black fruit is sweet,with a very thick pulp around a large single stone (drupe).[1]

The plant is prized for cultivation, showy and easily grown from seed, and has been cultivated for hundreds of years (or more) as a food source, and tolerates twice yearly pruning when often used as a hedge.[1] The plant likes full sun, loose open soil (porous), and tolertes drought conditions well, but needs regular watering when young.[1] Bees are attracted to it.[1]

Native Americans fermented the fruit into a drink used to get intoxicated.[1] “Prunus” comes from the old Latin for “plum”. “Ilici – folia means “holly like – leaves”.[1] This is the only species of the genus Prunus native to the Santa Monica Mountains that divide the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley, California.[1]


It is an evergreen shrub[1] or small tree approaching 15 meters in maximum height,[5] with dense, hard leaves[1] (sclerophyllous) foliage. The leaves are 1.6-12 cm long with a 4–25 mm petiole[5] and spiny margins, somewhat resembling those of the holly, hence its English name. The leaves are dark green when mature and generally shiny on top, and have a smell resembling almonds when crushed. The flowers are small (1-5 mm), white, produced on racemes in the spring. The fruit is a cherry 12–25 mm diameter, edible[1] and sweet, but contains little flesh surrounding the smooth seed.[5][6][7]


There are two subspecies:[8][9][10]

  • P. ilcifolia subsp. ilicifolia – mainland California and Baja California, red fruit 12–18 mm diameter
  • P. ilicifolia subsp. lyonii (Eastw.) Raven – Catalina cherry, Channel Islands of California (San Clemente, Santa Catalina, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Island islands), blue-black fruit 15–25 mm diameter

Distribution, habitat, and ecology

Prunus ilicifolia is native to California chaparral and foothill woodlands along the Coast Ranges below 1,600 m.[5] Its distribution extends from northern Baja California along the California coast to the northernmost extent of the Coast Ranges,[5], as well as into the desert chaparral areas of the Mojave desert. In chaparral communities, it tends to inhabit north-facing slopes, erosion channels, or other moist, cool sites.[2]

It is a persistent member of chaparral communities, being slow-growing but long-lived; common chaparral flora associates are toyon, western poison-oak and coffeeberry.[11] In the absence of fire, P. ilicifolia will outlive or outshade surrounding vegetation, making room for seedlings. Eventually, it will form extensive stands codominated by scrub oak.[2]

Regeneration and seedlings

Although it will resprout from the stump after fires, the seeds are not fire-adapted like those of many other chaparral plants.[12] Instead, it relies on the natural death of surrounding vegetation during long periods of fire-free conditions to make room for its seedlings.[2]

The seeds are also reported to require sunlight to germinate.[12] However, near 100% germination rates have been achieved with wild-collected seed buried completely in pots with a peatlite mix.[13]


The caterpillars of the pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) feed on this and other members of the riparian woodland plant community.[10]


Prunus ilicifolia is used in California native plants and wildlife gardens, and drought-tolerant sustainable landscaping.

Written on April 23rd, 2012 , Botany Tags:

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