Indian plum a welcome sign of spring

April 3, 2007 


    Scientific name: Oemleria cerasiformis
    Where found: Open woods, roadsides and stream banks in low elevations
    Places to look: North Shore Trail, Birch Bay State Park, Larrabee State Park, Lake Terrell Wildlife Area

The clusters of white, funnel-shaped blooms of Indian plum are an early sign from nature that the doldrums of winter soon will pass.

That’s because this shrub, which also is considered a small tree, is among the first to flower in spring. Indian plum is found in dry to moist areas along the coast from British Columbia down to California. It can grow to 17 feet and has bark that is smooth and purplish.

Also known as osoberry, the plant gets its other name from its fruit, which ripen in June-July to a bluish-black color and look like small plums. While these “plums” are edible, they’ve been described as bitter-tasting. And the blooms aren’t exactly sweet smelling.

“The flowers smell like cat urine, in my opinion,” says Holly Roger, a naturalist who works at Tennant Lake Interpretive Center in Ferndale. “Some people say that if you rub the leaves, they smell like cucumber.”

Coastal native peoples of the Pacific Northwest ate parts of the plant or used them for medicinal purposes. The Squamish, Halq’emeylem and several Washington Salish groups ate the berries fresh, cooked or dried, while the Saanich used the bark to make a tea that was a tonic as well as a purgative.

Sources: “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon; National Wildlife Federation’s eNature.com

Reach Kie Relyea at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2234.

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