Pikes/Pines | Spring is on the horizon, just check the Hill’s unassuming Indian Plums

The unassuming Indian Plum, blooming in Interlaken Park several springs ago (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Maybe it’s just me, but spring still feel miles away. I love winter, even in the Pacific Northwest, but in the end, I find myself anxious for spring just like everyone else. I’ve been noticing hints here and there. More birds are singing. I go to and from work in daylight now. Yet, nothing during these dreary grey months signals that sunnier days are on the horizon more than the first buds breaking on Indian Plum (Oemleria cercasiformis).

While other plants are still just thinking about breaking out of dormancy, our Indian Plums, or Osoberry, start making moves. First a bud begins to break and you can see a little bit of leaf unpeeling inside. Not long after, chains of greenish-white flowers unravel. Currently, Indian Plums are just beginning this process on the Hill, which is totally welcome when the rest of the understory in our local parks are still mostly a sea of bare sticks.

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Indian Plums aren’t actually plums, nor are the names “Indian” or “oso” (bear in Spanish) terribly descriptive. Sure, the drupes, also known as stone fruits, resemble small plums. Indian plums are also in the same family, Rosacea, as plums, but this is far from a modest plant family with around 5,000 species. Indigenous people throughout the plant’s range from B.C. to Northern California did eat the fruit, though the written record doesn’t suggest they were a staple or a preferred fruit. Birds probably do the bulk of the work in stripping the fruit in early summer, typically before they’re even ripe enough for bears or people show much interest. In my forest rambles, I rarely find fully ripe, purplish, Indian “plums.” Instead I usually see them when they are still developing orangish fruit, like tiny apricots.

These mid-sized shrubs are very common understory plants in our native forests, and they are easy to find in any of the green spaces on the Hill. In places like the St. Mark’s Greenbelt they seem to hold their ground despite the endless pressure from other introduced species like English Ivy (Hedera helix) (which is particularly excellent at smothering other plants). Go for a walk in Interlaken or snoop along the borders of Volunteer Park and you’ll notice plenty of these early bloomers going about their business largely unnoticed.

A closer look at well unfurled Indian Plum blooms. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Indian Plums have never caught on in popularity in formal gardens, but they are easy to grow natives that are important food for a host of animals. They’re dioecious plants, with male and female plants, and they rely entirely on early pollinators like bees, flies, and moths and in turn offer much needed early forage. Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) migrating up the West Coast rely on Indian Plums as early food along with Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). Our resident Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna) may rely on cultivated plants and hummingbird feeders to persist through the winter, but Indian Plum blooms are also welcome food in the spring.

I chose to write about Indian Plums this week because I think they are one of the unsung heroes of our native forests. They aren’t particularly showy, nor do they have huge, luscious fruits. People don’t flock to UW campus to see their blooms, despite being well underway within spitting distance of the quad. Yet, I find their early blooms satisfying and rejuvenating, probably because they keep chugging along regardless of how much we fawn over them. And, when they start to unfurl in the unpredictable months of February and March, I can’t help but admire their ability to persist even when late snows can catch them at a vulnerable point in their development. Go admire a Indian Plum and brighten your winter with a hint a spring.

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