Prunus ilicifolia

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Prunus ilicifolia
Prunus ilicifolia ne1.jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Prunus
Species: P. ilicifolia
Binomial name
Prunus ilicifolia
(Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.) Walp.
Prunus ilicifolia range map 3.png
Natural range of Prunus ilicifolia (var. ilicifolia green; var. occidentalis blue)

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 tolerates 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]


Prunus ilicifolia flowers

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]

Distribution, habitat, and ecology[edit]

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[edit]

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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal & Chaparral Regions of Southern California, Nancy Dale, 1985, p172
  2. ^ a b c d e Fire Effects Information Service, USDA Forest Service: Prunus ilicifolia
  3. ^ E.G. Gudde (1946). The Solution of the Islay Problem. California Folklore Quarterly 5 (3): 298-299 (Gudde concludes that the word "islay" originated in a Salinan word slay; Islay was the Spanish version of their word).
  4. ^ Germplasm Resources Information Network: Prunus ilicifolia
  5. ^ a b c d e Jepson Flora: Prunus ilicifolia
  6. ^ Munz, Philip A. 1973. A California flora and supplement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  7. ^ Conrad, C. E. (1987). Common shrubs of chaparral and associated ecosystems of southern California. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-99. Berkeley, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station.
  8. ^ Jepson Flora: Prunus ilicifolia subsp. ilicifolia
  9. ^ Jepson Flora: Prunus ilicifolia subsp. lyonii
  10. ^ a b Schoenherr, A. A. (1993). A Natural History of California. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  11. ^ Hogan, C. Michael (2008) Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), GlobalTwitcher, ed. N. Stromberg [1]
  12. ^ a b Keeley, Jon E. 1987. Role of fire in seed germination of woody taxa in California chaparral. Ecology 68(2): 434-443; cited in FEIS
  13. ^ Mirov, N. T., & Kraebel, C. J. (1937). Collecting and propagating the seeds of California wild plants. Research Note 18: 1-27. Berkeley, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, California Forest and Range Experiment Station

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