Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) is an early bloomer that signifies the coming of spring. When Indian Plum buds burst into bright green leaves, Pacific Northwesterners can rejoice because sunlight and warmth are on their way back to the region. Eventually.
The early production of leaves in Indian Plum may be an adaptation that allows this species to capture a bunch of energy from the Sun before the larger trees (e.g. Bigleaf Maple) unfurl their own foliage, which then blocks much of the sunlight from reaching the smaller understory plants.
This plant grows as a small tree or shrub in low elevation forests, in dry to moist conditions. It is a common species in the forested nature parks of Portland, Seattle, and other urban areas.
Indian Plum ranges from British Columbia to Northern California.
The leaves of Indian Plum are lance-shaped, 2-5 in (5-12 cm) long, and smell like cucumbers when crushed.
Visiting Portland soon?
The white flowers open in February or March. They hang down in clusters (i.e. racemes). Each flower is bell-shaped, has five petals, and is about 0.5 in (1 cm) wide. The flowers’ fragrance is something like cat urine. Sniff with caution.
Small, plum-like berries form later in the season. They’re edible, and in my opinion, quite tasty. Some people describe them as bitter. Native peoples harvested Indian Plum fruits and ate them raw, cooked, or dried. It’s difficult for humans to get a taste of fully-ripe Indian Plum berries because birds and mammals generally pick the bushes clean.
This plant is in fact related to cherries and plums (both in the genus Prunus), being in the plum subfamily of Rosaceae, the rose family.