Spring is in the air. Days are getting longer, the soil is warming up, we’re getting a little less rain, and buds are swelling on the trees and shrubs. Some of the catkin-bearing trees are already blooming. But one of the first real signs of spring for me in the Northwest is when the Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) blossoms open.
I’ve been noticing in the past few days that the buds are getting plump and the very first precocious blossoms are showing signs of opening. As soon as we get a few warmish days the Indian Plum will burst into bloom and we’ll know that spring has actually arrived.
Indian plum is a large shrub or small tree which also goes by the name oso berry. It is widespread in the Northwest, but more common west of the Cascades and prefers somewhat moist but not swampy habitats. It handles summer drought just fine once established, although it has a tendency to lose its leaves early when drought stressed. You’ll find it growing at forest edges, in open forests, and canyons.
When in bloom, Indian plum is almost instantly recognizable by its clusters of white blossoms dangling from side branches and in leaf axils. Male and female blossoms are usually on separate plants, but you have to look closely to tell them apart. Flowers are tubular and are an early favorite of hummingbirds.
In mid summer look for ripe fruit. The plums, which are edible but bitter and have very little flesh, ripen in stages from yellow to orange to deep blue-black. Birds seem to know exactly when they’re at their best so it may be a challenge to find fully ripe Indian plum fruit.
Indian plum makes a good back of the border shrub in a native plant garden, where you’ll notice it in bloom early in the season and again when the leaves turn golden yellow in late summer. Be aware that deer are fond of it, so you may need to give it some protection for the first few years you have one planted in your garden if you share your garden with deer.