Oemlaria Cerasiformis

A good plant to think of in January. Also, the first Plant of the Month column I ever wrote.

Around the time this newsletter comes out, some of you will probably be looking for the first signs of spring. A good place to start is the shrub Oemlaria cerasiformis, also called osoberry or Indian plum. Native to the west slope of the Cascades from BC to California, it is one of the earliest low altitude spring bloomers. Here in the Puget Sound lowlands, it can occasionally be found in flower as early as late January. O. cerasiformis is dioeceous, with male plants being more common than females, and also sporting more flowers and a longer blooming time. Male and female flowers are superficially similar, but if you look inside (use a hand lens), the flower will either have developed stamens or ovaries. You can also “cheat” by looking for the remaining stems from last year’s fruit on the female plants.
In the landscape, osoberry tends to blend in with the other shrubs in the forest edge or riparian area, an inconspicuous wall of green when it is not dressed in sprays of delicate white flowers. In my yard, at least, the leaves start to yellow and fall by late August, making it both early to bed and early to rise.
The fruits are drupes, like plums or cherries, (also members of the rose family), and ripen as early as May or June, first blushing orange, then red, then nearly black when they are ripe. They are edible, if you can get to them before the birds and critters do – everyone from cedar waxwings and grosbeaks to racoons and coyotes enjoys an osoberry. Try to find one from a sunny branch. It will have a higher sugar content. If you can collect enough, they make an excellent jam.
So, put on your boots and raingear, and take yourself for a walk along a lowland forest edge, looking for the first signs of spring. See if you can find a female osoberry, and keep checking back in early summer. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find enough plums to make jam.

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