Nature Notes from the Steamboat Peninsula is a series for noting and enjoying some of what nature and her admirers are up to in our neighborhood.
Recently the winter woods are breathing pale clouds of color, gifts from various species of Native Plum. Among the candidates for this distinction are the following :
The Northwest Indian Plum, also known as the Pacific Plum, Sierra Plum, Oregon Plum, or technically, Prunus Subcordata. Native to the Northwest and Northern California, this small tree prefers lower elevations but lives at elevations up to 6000 feet. With dense, thicket-like habit, this plum can grow up to 20 feet tall.
Among the first plants to bloom here in the spring, the Northwest Indian Plum is a vitally important food source for another familiar early arrival here; the fiery little Rufous Hummingbird, as well as many other creatures. The white or pink-flushed blossoms first emerge in March or April from gray-barked branches with brown lenticels.
Later, oblong dark red or yellow fruits ripen. Depending on your source, the fruit is described variously as very bitter, very tasty, or tart but edible. Regardless of its insecure rank on human menus, this plum is saluted as a seasonal treat by wildlife.
Another native plum, Oemleria Cerasiformis, also blooms in March and April, with whitish-green blossoms. This plum, also known as the Indian Plum or Osoberry, is native to the Pacific Coast and lower elevation Coastal Ranges from the Santa Barbara, California, area north to British Columbia. Westward, it extends its native range to the Cascades.
Shorter than Prunus Subcordata, this plum grows to about three and a half to fifteen feet, with smooth reddish-brown to dark gray bark. Loosely branching habit, leaves that are paler on their lower side, and fresh foliage described as tasting like cucumber help identify this plum.
Pollination requires both male and female plants. The resulting fruits, up to about half an inch long, are initially orange-yellow, but blue-black on red stems when ripe. Among others, deer, rodents and birds feed on these plums.
The latest in an ancient line of trees native to these very woods, the native plums we see in bloom today may seem, relative to cultivated species, rather small, even shaggy, and not possessed of the the biggest, most colorful leaves, or showiest blooms. But who among their neighbors, having been graced by their pale end-of-winter blossoms, summer leaves and fruits, or simply their ancient presence as just one of the unique elements our woodlands, could turn down another Springtime opportunity to celebrate them?
– D. Wiley