Where we live, winter tends to be mostly green and grey. With deciduous trees bare, our landscape is dominated by firs and red cedars and our weather is full of what we west coasters euphemistically call “liquid sunshine”. But late in the winter – usually by mid-February – our little forest starts to comes alive as the earliest-flowering deciduous species begins its annual show. (More photos below.)
We moved into our place in February 2001, on the first day of a glorious week of sunshine and warm temperatures that heralded an early spring. The garden was already offering a few edible greens and crocus blooms were ready to burst. For the first few days we were busy unpacking and organizing our new home and work spaces, and we didn’t make it much further than the garden. But when we eventually walked down the trail to the southern end of our new property, what we found took our breath away.
On the far side of the little creek that runs through our land stood a twisting, multi-trunked tree, with a wide, intricate canopy of long intertwining branches and twigs – topped by a cloud of dazzling white with a hint of yellow. It was like looking at a Renoir painting.
That was our introduction to Indian plum (Oemlaria cerasiformis) – a deciduous shrub native to the Pacific coast, which can grow to 20 feet high and 12 feet wide. It’s also known as Osoberry, Oregon plum and skunkbush (although I beg to differ; personally I rather like its scent). For some reason I can’t quite fathom, neither of us had ever noticed Indian plum before that day.
As it turns out, Indian plums are dotted all through the southern, wetter half of our property. But none are as magnificent as the one beside the creek – actually several Indian plums growing together, giving the impression of a single, large tree. From the first moment we saw it, we dubbed it “The Picnic Tree”: with its spreading canopy, gentle underlay of grass and view of our neighbour’s lovely old apple orchard, how could there be any better place for a picnic?
The beautiful blooms of Indian plum are followed by a plentiful crop of small, slightly bitter fruits – more like a cherry than a plum – which taste and smell like watermelon rind. Native Americans apparently ate them (as well as using the twigs and bark for medicinal purposes). But at our place, the birds quickly devour the fruits, so we’re seldom able to find any that are even half ripe.
Over the summer the leaves yellow and drop. By November we can see new buds on the branches, which lift our spirits in that dark time of the year. Over the winter we check the Picnic Tree frequently to see how the buds are progressing. And then by February – or rather, March, this year – at last, the lovely light has returned to our forest!