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Holly-leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia, is a plant common in the chaparral of southern California. Identified by its shiny green leaves, which somewhat resemble holly, this plant will stand out on an otherwise dull brown hillside in the summer. Holly-leaf cherry has clusters of small white flowers in the spring, followed by red fruits which look much like domestic cherries but taste quite a bit more bitter. Although they are not very desirable to humans, wildlife such as coyotes and birds thrive on them. Holly-leaf cherry requires more water than some other chaparral plants, such as chamise or sagebrush, so it is usually found on north-facing slopes in fairly deep soil. However, it is a tough plant, and is sometimes found in drier areas.

Most chaparral plants thrive on disturbance. They live in areas with many fires, mudslides, floods, and other such events, and are well adapted to literally spring back from the ashes, either by sprouting from roots, or seeds waiting in the soil. Holly-leaf cherry, however, has a different strategy. Unlike most chaparral plants, holly-leaf cherry can tolerate quite a bit of shade. So, it sends its seeds, via the excretory system of a coyote or raccoon, onto a hillside thick with ceanothus or toyon. The seedlings sprout, and slowly grow towards the canopy. Soon they peek out amongst the other vegetation, but most of their leaves are still in the shade, waiting. Usually, a fire will come through, and reset things, and the cherry will be restricted to the understory again. However, sometimes this does not happen. Sometimes, in deep canyons, in rocky areas, or on islands, a fire does not come through for hundreds of years. This is the environment where holly-leaf cherry thrives. Eventually, the ceanothus which sheltered the cherry will grow old and die. But unlike cherry, ceanothus can not tolerate shade. Seedlings of the ceanothus fail to survive in this environment, and the cherry is left, with virtually no competition, to grow to surprising large size. In these magical, protected mini-forests, the trees can reach 30 feet or more, giving the area the appearance of much wetter climates to the north and east

Being a quite pleasant plant, holly-leaf cherry is a good addition to a landscape. It may rot with too much water, but it can survive more moisture and shade than most other chaparral plants. Its attractive fruits and flowers put on a show for the warmer months, but the foliage is attractive all year. In addition, the leaves, when crushed, emit a mild but very pleasant scent somewhat like almond extract.

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