Can you eat Christmas berries? (3 Precautions)

In this brief guide, we will answer the question, Can you eat Christmas berries? We will discuss how you can eat Christmas berries safely and the health risks associated with eating Christmas berries. We will also elaborate on the attributes of the plant that bears Christmas berries.

Can you eat Christmas berries?

You can eat Christmas berries if you cook them first. Even though the primary purpose of Christmas berries is to be decorated as ornaments, if you like you can eat them also if they are fully ripe and cooked. 

According to a 10-year retrospective study of forensic autopsy cases, it is estimated that near to 7% of poisoning deaths in China are due to the use of poisonous plants (5).

Toyon berries are acidic and astringent, and contain a small amount of cyanogenic glycosides, which break down into hydrocyanic acid on digestion. This is removed by mild cooking. Raw berries are mealy, astringent and acidic, though were eaten fresh, or mashed into water to make a beverage by Native Americans (1).

Cyanide levels are highest in new leaves during spring, drop in the fall, then rise again once it rains The pulp of immature fruit contains cyanide; once mature, the seeds contain cyanide, but the pulp does not (2). Cooking Christmas berries destroys the toxic compound that occurs naturally. 

Christmas berries have Cyogenic Glucosides; a compound that can be poisonous in large quantities. However, the harmful compound escapes when you cook Christmas berries.

Tannins and cyanic compounds also occur in Christmas berries. Signs of intoxication with these berries include difficulty of breathing, convulsions, bloody nose, bloating, and death (2).

The cyanic compounds are potentially harmful and discourage animals from feeding on them. After the Christmas berries become ripe enough, they are ravished by wild birds including cedar, quails, robins, and mockingbirds. 

Cyanogenic glycosides are natural plant toxins that are present in several plants, most of which are consumed by humans. Cyanide is formed following the hydrolysis of cyanogenic glycosides that occur during crushing of the edible plant material either during consumption or during processing of the food crop. Exposure to cyanide from unintentional or intentional consumption of cyanogenic glycosides may lead to acute intoxications, characterized by growth retardation and neurological symptoms resulting from tissue damage in the central nervous system. Processing methods can detoxify cyanogenic glycosides and reduce the risk of cyanide poisoning. The efficiency of cyanide removal, however, depends on the processing technique employed and the extent of processing. Processing operations such as fermentation, boiling/ cooking, and drying, applied to processed food‐containing cyanogenic glycosides have been reported to reduce cyanide content to acceptably safe levels (3).

In full sun, the Christmas berries grow in compact bushes. During summer, the Christmas berries do not need water and can be shaped and pruned easily. 

Christmas berries that are immature, as well as the leaves, contain high levels of cyanide that can cause sickness and death. As the Christmas berries become mature, the cyanide transfers and becomes concentrated into the seed and there is none left in the pulp.  

Christmas berries start as green and turn bright red as they ripen. The berries look like tiny apples. You can make jam using the Christmas berries, by cooking and adding sugar. 

Have people ever eaten Christmas berries?

Native Americans did eat Christmas berries for food. Some of them insisted that Christmas berries taste sweet or spicy while others said that they were too bitter.

It has also been stated that Christmas berries were eaten only when the Native Americans were starving. Dried berries were used by native California Indians to treat a type of Alzheimer’s disease (4). Drying is effective in reducing toxicity of the berries (3).

The early civilizations roasted or boiled the Christmas berries to get rid of the bitter compounds.  Christmas berries were also stored as food by drying them to get rid of moisture and cooked when they were ready to be eaten. 

Some preferred to make pies and custards of the Christmas berries while others fermented the Christmas berries into cider that helped to get rid of the cyanic compounds. 

What are Christmas berries?

Christmas berries are also known as California holly, and come from the plant known as toyon. Christmas berries are found widely in the state of California. 

 The Christmas berries are also referred to as Heteromeles arbutifolia in scientific terms. The Christmas berries grow in large clusters on an evergreen shrub. The Christmas berries have glossy, green leaves. 

The toyon is from the family of Rosaceae. Toyon is a dicot angiosperm that belongs to the rose family. The rose family includes many precious plants that are desired either as ornaments or fruits. Most fruits from plants in the Rosaceae family contain cyanide, including apples, apricots, peaches, cherries and plums (4).

Roses and pyracantha are used as ornaments while plums, peaches, apples, and strawberries are consumed as fruits. 

The toyons are an evergreen shrub that is drought resistant. The thick, waxy leaves reduce transpiration and make the plant stay green throughout the year. 

The growth of toyon becomes slow in winters and summers. Toyons are also equipped with a deep root system that allows them to thrive even during dry spells.

Christmas berries ripen late during the fall season and are available throughout the winters until they are eaten by wild creatures. During summers the Christmas berries don’t appear, rather the small white flowers are prominent.

The toyon plant is a relatively small tree, around 20 feet tall. The leaves of the toyon are 5-10 cm, with an oval shape and small teeth. 

The waxy and thick leaves of toyon start as a bronze color. The flowers of the toyon plant are bisexual. Bisexual flowers have both male and female parts; the stamen and carpels, that are capable of self-pollinating. The flowers have twice as many stamens as petals.

The toyon and Christmas berries also had non-food uses in the olden times. The leaves were used for sores while the wood was used to make weapons and tools. 

In the 1920s, the Christmas berries turned scarce as they were extensively harvested that depleted the population. To combat the threat, a law was passed that prohibited exploiting toyon from public property. 

Hence, the principal use of Christmas berries was to exploit their beauty around Christmas time and may not be the best choice as a food choice. 

However, it was used earlier by Indians as a medicine. Senile dementia, now commonly called Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, was known among California Indians before Europeans came to California. The condition was commonly treated with the berries of Heteromeles arbutifolia, also called toyon or California holly. The medicine consists of about 5 g of the dried berries which are slowly chewed and swallowed by the patient. The medicine slows down the progression of the disease and helps patients continue to have productive lives (4).

In this brief guide, we answered the question, Can you eat Christmas berries? We discussed how you can eat Christmas berries safely and the health risks associated with eating Christmas berries. We also elaborated on the attributes of the plant that bears Christmas berries.

Other FAQs about Berries that you may be interested in.

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Can you eat fresh cranberries without cooking?


  1. Rideout, D. Toyon. Heteromeles arbutifolia. California Native Plant Society.
  2. DYKIER, CASEY, et al. PROFILES OF CALIFORNIA BRUSH. 2018. University of California.
  3. Bolarinwa, Islamiyat Folashade, et al. A review of cyanogenic glycosides in edible plants. Toxicology–New Aspects to This Scientific Conundrum. 2016.
  4. Wang X, Dubois R, Young C, Lien EJ, Adams JD. Heteromeles Arbutifolia, a Traditional Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease, Phytochemistry and Safety. Medicines, 2016, 3, 17. 
  5. Ghorani-Azam, Adel, et al. Plant toxins and acute medicinal plant poisoning in children: A systematic literature review. J res med sci off j Isfahan Univ Med Sci, 2018, 23.