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 but if you like you can eat them also if they are fully ripe and cooked. 

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.

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. 

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 that they were too bitter.

It has also been stated that Christmas berries were eaten only when the Native Americans were starving. 

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, 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. 

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 become 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. 

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.


Hi, I am Charlotte, I love cooking and in my previous life, I was a chef. I bring some of my experience to the recipes on this hub and answer your food questions.