Prunus ilicifolia

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Hollyleaf cherry
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Prunus
P. ilicifolia
Binomial name
Prunus ilicifolia
Natural range of Prunus ilicifolia (var. ilicifolia green; var. occidentalis blue)
  • Cerasus ilicifolia Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.
  • Laurocerasus ilicifolia (Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.) M.Roem.
  • Lauro-cerasus ilicifolia (Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.) M.Roem.
  • Prunus lyonii (Eastw.) Sarg.

Prunus ilicifolia (Common names: hollyleaf cherry,[4] evergreen cherry;[5] islay - Salinan Native American[6]) is native to the chaparral areas of coastal California (from Mendocino County to San Diego County), Baja California, and Baja California Sur.[5][7] as well as the desert chaparral areas of the Mojave desert.[8][9]

Prunus ilicifolia is an evergreen shrub[4] to tree, producing edible cherries, with shiny and spiny toothed leaves[4] similar in appearance to those of holly. This resemblance is the source of both the common name "holly-leaved cherry" and the scientific epithet "ilicifolia" (Ilex-leaved). It grows 2.4 to 9.1 metres (8 to 30 feet) tall, with thick, alternate leaves 2.5 to 5.1 centimetres (1 to 2 inches) in length.[4] It has small white flowers growing in clusters, similar in appearance to most members of the rose family, Rosaceae, flowering from March to May.[4] The flowers are terminal on small stalks, with the youngest at the cluster center. The purple to black fruit is sweet, with a very thin pulp around a large single stone (drupe).[4][10]

The plant is prized for cultivation, showy and easily grown from seed, and has been cultivated for centuries as a food source, and tolerates twice yearly pruning when often used as a hedge.[4] The plant likes full sun, loose open soil (porous), and tolerates drought conditions well, but needs regular watering when young.[4]

Despite its name, it is not a true cherry (P. subg. Cerasus) species. It is traditionally included in P. subg. Laurocerasus, but molecular research indicates it is nested with species of P. subg. Padus.[11] Ilicifolia or “ilex foliage,” means “holly-like leaves” in Latin[4]


Prunus ilicifolia flowers

It is an evergreen shrub[4] or small tree approaching 15 metres (49 feet) in height,[12] with dense, hard leaves[4] (sclerophyllous foliage). The leaves are 1.6–12 centimetres (344+34 inches) long with a 4–25 millimetres (18–1 in) petiole[12] and spiny margins, somewhat resembling those of the holly. The leaves are dark green when mature and generally shiny on top, and have a smell resembling almonds when crushed; these are poisonous to eat, but not to handle.[13] The flowers are small (1–5 mm), white, produced on racemes in the spring. The fruit is a cherry 12–25 mm in diameter, sweet in taste, with little flesh surrounding the smooth seed.[12][14][15]


There are two subspecies:[16][17][18]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Prunus ilicifolia is native to California chaparral and foothill woodlands along the Coast Ranges below 1,600 m (5,200 ft).[12] Its distribution extends from northern Baja California along the California coast to the northernmost extent of the Coast Ranges,[12] 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.[5] This is the only species of the genus Prunus native to California's Santa Monica Mountains, which divide the Los Angeles Basin from the San Fernando Valley.[4]

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.[19] 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.[5]


The leaf shape resembles that of English holly

Although it will resprout from the stump after fires, the seeds are not fire-adapted like those of many other chaparral plants.[20] Instead, it relies on the natural death of surrounding vegetation during long periods of fire-free conditions to make room for its seedlings.[5]

Though the seeds are often reported to require sunlight to germinate,[20] germination rates of nearly 100% have been achieved with wild-collected seed buried completely in pots with a peatlite mix.[21]

The caterpillars of the pale swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) feed on this and other members of the riparian woodland plant community.[18] It is also a larval host to the California hairstreak, Lorquin's admiral, Nevada buckmoth, and tiger swallowtail.[22] Bees are attracted to it.[4]


Prunus ilicifolia is used in California native plants and wildlife gardens, and drought-tolerant sustainable landscaping.[23]


The pulp of the cherry is edible.[4] However, the seeds of the hollyleaf cherry are considered to be toxic, and the plant must undergo certain leaching processes to make it safe for consumption.[24] Native Americans fermented the fruit into an intoxicating drink.[4] Some also cracked the dried cherries and made meal from the seeds after grinding and leaching them.[25] It has also been made into jam.[26]

The method of preparation for the cherry was to first extract and crush the kernel in a mortar, and the resulting powder would then be leached in order to eliminate remaining bad chemicals. The final step was to boil the leached powder into an atole.[24] Once this process was completed, Native Californians would then make soup base, tortillas, or tamale-like foods using the resulting ground meal. Other times, the kernel would be kept whole, leached to remove its hydrocyanic acid content, roasted for a couple hours, and then used to make cakes or balls.[27]

Aside from food, the hollyleaf cherry was also used for medicinal purposes by some Native Californian tribes, including the Diegueño and the Cahuilla. Specifically, infusions made from the bark and roots of hollyleaf cherry plants would be used as treatment for common colds and coughs.[27]


  1. ^ IUCN SSC Global Tree Specialist Group & Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) (2020). "Prunus ilicifolia". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T64122457A152907500. Retrieved 23 June 2022.
  2. ^ The Plant List, Cerasus ilicifolia Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn
  3. ^ Tropicos, Prunus ilicifolia (Nutt. ex Hook. & Arn.) D. Dietr.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Dale, Nancy (1985). Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal & Chaparral Regions of Southern California. Santa Barbara: Capra. p. 172. ISBN 9780884962397. OCLC 12370484.
  5. ^ a b c d e Fire Effects Information Service, USDA Forest Service: Prunus ilicifolia
  6. ^ 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).
  7. ^ "Prunus ilicifolia". Germplasm Resources Information Network. Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
  8. ^ Calflora taxon report, University of California, Prunus ilicifolia (Nutt.) Walp., Holly leaved Cherry, holly leaf cherry, hollyleaf cherry
  9. ^ SEINet, Southwestern Biodiversity, Arizona chapter photos and distribution map
  10. ^ Jan Timbrook (December 1982). "Use of Wild Cherry Pits as Food by the California Indians" (PDF). Journal of Ethnobiology. Santa Barbara, California. 2 (2): 163. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  11. ^ Wen, Jun; Berggren, Scott T.; Lee, Chung-Hee; Ickert-Bond, Stefanie; Yi, Ting-Shuang; Yoo, Ki-Oug; Xie, Lei; Shaw, Joey; Potter, Dan (2008-04-25). "Phylogenetic inferences in Prunus (Rosaceae) using chloroplast ndhF and nuclear ribosomal ITS sequences". Journal of Systematics and Evolution. 46 (3): 322–332. doi:10.3724/SP.J.1002.2008.08065 (inactive 1 August 2023). ISSN 1674-4918.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of August 2023 (link)
  12. ^ a b c d e Jepson Flora: Prunus ilicifolia
  13. ^ Peattie, Donald Culross (1953). A Natural History of Western Trees. New York: Bonanza Books. p. 543.
  14. ^ Munz, Philip A. 1973. A California flora and supplement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Jepson Flora: Prunus ilicifolia subsp. ilicifolia
  17. ^ Jepson Flora: Prunus ilicifolia subsp. lyonii
  18. ^ a b Schoenherr, A. A. (1993). A Natural History of California. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  19. ^ Hogan, C. Michael (2008) Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), GlobalTwitcher, ed. N. Stromberg "Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia ) - -". Archived from the original on 2009-07-19. Retrieved 2009-08-19.
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ Black, Scott Hoffman (2016). Gardening for butterflies : how you can attract and protect beautiful, beneficial insects. Xerces Society. Portland, Oregon. ISBN 978-1-60469-761-2. OCLC 945564211.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ "A California-Friendly Guide to Native and Drought Tolerant Gardens". Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.
  24. ^ a b ethnoherbalist. "Hollyleaf cherry, a favorite shrub among early southern Californians -". Retrieved 2023-10-24.
  25. ^ Whitney, Stephen (1985). Western Forests (The Audubon Society Nature Guides). New York: Knopf. p. 417. ISBN 0-394-73127-1.
  26. ^ Peattie, Donald Culross (1953). A Natural History of Western Trees. New York: Bonanza Books. p. 544.
  27. ^ a b Immel, Diana L. (January 9, 2002). "Hollyleaf Cherry" (PDF). USDA National Resources Conservation Service.

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