Holly-leaved Cherry

Holly-leaved Cherry © KKorbholz

Holly-leafed Cherry, Islay
Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifolia

Description (Jepson, PlantID.net)

    • Eudicotyledon
      • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
    • Rose Family (Rosaceae)
    • Evergreen tree or shrub, usually compact and densely leaved
      • All other native California Prunus species are deciduous
    • Leaves
      • Simple (not divided into leaflets) and alternate (1 leaf at each junction with stem)
      • Ovate to round, thick and wavy, with spiny-serrate margins
      • Shiny dark-green upper surface; light-green underside
      • Up to 2 in. long
    • Flowers
      • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) is a many-flowered raceme (unbranched stem with stalked flowers opening from the bottom up)
      • Small, white, 5-petaled flowers
      • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
      • Flower © DSchiel
    • Fruit a small red or dark-purple drupe (a usually single-seeded, fleshy fruit with a stony endocarp [inner wall of ripe ovary], commonly called a stone fruit, e.g. peach)
    • Height to 30 ft.
    • Life span over 100 years


      • Native to California
        • Common shrub component in foothill woodlands, chaparral, and coastal scrub
        • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
      • Outside California, grows into Baja California, Mexico
      • Grows at elevations to 5,250 ft.

      Uses (Picking or removing any natural material from public land is illegal)

        • Pollen and nectar source for bees
        • Host plant for larvae of many butterflies, including California hairstreak (Satyrium californica), Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquini), western swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), and pale swallowtail (P. eurymedon)
        • Berries eaten by birds, small mammals, and deer
        • Leaves browsed by deer
        • Native people had many uses for holly-leaved cherry
          • Fruit was eaten fresh or fermented to make an alcoholic drink
          • Fruit kernel (pit) was ground and carefully leached to remove cyanide-producing chemicals for flour before roasting and grinding for flour (Anderson 2005)
          • Infusion of leaves and bark taken as a cough medicine
          • Wood used for bows
        • CAUTION – the fleshy part of the fruit is sweet and edible, but everything else, including the seed, is poisonous
          • In the Prunus genus, all plant parts, except for the mature, outer fleshy fruits, contain cyanide-producing chemicals (BhaduriHauck 2015)
        • Crushed leaf smells like almond, an indication of cyanide!
        Fruit © DSchiel

        Name Derivation

          • Prunus (PROO-nus) Latin for “plum”
          • ilicifolia (il-is-i-FO-lee-a) – from the Linnaean classification of Ilex for holly (ilex was originally the classical Latin name for the Mediterranean holm oak, which has holly-like leaves) and the Latin folia, “leaf”; thus, “having leaves like holly” (Shorter Oxford 2007)


            • Leaves have several defenses against herbivory
              • Contain cyanide-producing chemicals
              • Spines also deter animals from eating the leaves
            • Component of California chaparral
              • Chaparral refers to evergreen shrub and small tree communities that grow on shallow, rocky, nutrient-poor soils in Mediterranean climates, with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers
              • Chaparral shrubs, like holly-leaved cherry, are examples of sclerophyllous (“hard-leaf”) vegetation, with leaves that conserve water by being
                • Thick and leathery, with extra lignin (structural component that stiffens plant tissue) to prevent wilting
                • Waxy, with a thick cuticle that reduces transpiration
                • Densely organized, occurring at short distance along the stem, thus increasing local humidity
                • Usually small and oriented parallel or oblique to direct sunlight, reducing surface
                • exposure
            • Although holly-leaved cherry is common in fire-prone environments, the seeds do not survive fire; instead, the plant resprouts from the root crown
            • Only evergreen member of the Prunus genus native to California
            • Edgewood’s holly-leaved cherry is classified as a subspecies
              • Subspecies rank is used to recognize geographic distinctiveness, whereas variety rank is appropriate for variants seen throughout the geographic range of the species; in practice, these two ranks are not distinct

            ID Tips

              Underside of Leaf of Coast Live Oak (L), Leather Oak (LM), Holly-leaved Cherry (RM), Coast Silk Tassel (R) © DSchiel
              Coast Live OakLeather OakHolly-leaved CherryCoast Silk Tassel
                 Shapeovateoblong to ellipticwidely ovate to roundelliptic
                 Marginoften wavy and curled

              some spines
              wavy and curled

              many spines
              wavy, but not curled

              many spines
              often wavy and curled

              no spines
                 Upper Surfacematte to shiny dark green

              no hairs
              matte to shiny dark green

              hairs when new
              very shiny bright green

              no hairs
              matte to shiny green

              no hairs
                 Lower Surfacelighter green

              possible hairy tufts at vein junctions
              matte green

              densely hairy
              very shiny bright green

              no hairs

              densely matted hairs
              Flowersmale catkins and small, solitary females

              on same plant
              male catkins and small, solitary females

              on same plant
              bisexual flowers

              in clusters
              male and female catkins

              on separate plants
              Fruitsacornsacornsdrupesclustered berries

              At Edgewood

                • Found in chaparral and open woodlands
                  • Found trailside along lower Sylvan trail between Baywood Glen trail (post 7) and Serpentine trail (post 16)
                    • Look for the lone, tree-sized holly-leaved cherry at the sharp Sylvan trail switchback; nearby for comparison is a leather oak and coast live oak
                  • See iNaturalist for observations of Prunus ilicifolia
                • Flowers March – June
                • Fruit ripens in fall

                See General References

                Specific References

                  Baumann, L. 2017, Oct. 14. Holly-leaved Cherry. Santa Monica Trails Council, Agoura Hills, California.

                    BhaduriHauck, S. 2015, Aug. 3. Toxic Plant Profile: Prunus Species. University of Maryland Extension.

                      McMurray, N.E. 1990. Prunus ilicifolia. Fire Effects Information System. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

                        Ritter, M. 2018. California Plants: A Guide to Our Iconic Flora. Pacific Street Publishing, San Luis Obispo, California.

                          Shapiro, A.M. and Manolis, T.D. 2007. Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions. University of California Press, Berkeley – Los Angeles, California.

                            Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th ed. 2007. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p. 3804.