by Julie Gomez
An early springtime bloomer is Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)—a native, deciduous shrub, rarely a small tree, that belongs to the Rose Family, and whose name means “cherry-shaped.” Other common names include Oso-berry, squaw plum, Oregon plum, bird cherry, and skunk bush.
Indian plum grows five to twenty feet tall, and is just as wide. Branches and twigs are purplish-brown, smooth, and flecked with gray pores (lenticels).
Leaves measure two to five inches long. Bright green above, they are waxy below, and have smooth to slightly wavy margins. Leaves are lance-shaped and alternate at a forty-five degree angle along the stems. (Young leaves, when crushed, smell and taste like cucumber!)
Buds in winter are bright green that turn shades of red in spring.
Flowers bloom February to April. Male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Male flowers are showy and creamy white, but have a strong foul odor similar to skunk or cat urine. Female flowers are pale green, and smell pleasantly like cucumber. They are shaped like little bells or trumpets, and have five petals. When open, they measure one quarter to one half inch wide, and bloom in long, loose, drooping clusters at the tops of the stems.
Fruit (plum) is a one-seeded drupe that measures one-half inch long. Young fruit turn pale shades of yellow and peach, and bluish-black when fully ripe. Ripe fruit has a white powdery bloom. Birds and bears relish the fruit.
As food: Fruit (fresh or dried) is very bitter, and smells like almonds. Fruit can be dried for later use. Cooked, it can be sweetened and made into jelly. Indians ate the fresh fruit with eulachon (smelt) oil and bear fat. For longer storage, fruit was put in cedar boxes, covered with hot eulachon oil, sealed, and stored in a cool, dry place.
As medicine: Bark tea was drunk to treat tuberculosis, and used for a strong laxative; it was also taken for an all-purpose health tonic. Twigs (chewed) burnt and mixed with eulachon oil, was used to poultice open sores and wounds. Fresh fruit, when eaten in small quantities, can reduce mucus secretions, bleeding, and diarrhea.
Warning! Fruit contains high levels of hydrogen cyanide. It should only be eaten in small quantities. Its use is not recommended.
Look for Indian plum in dry to moist open forests, canyons, chaparral, yellow pine forests, and along streams and roadsides.
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Julie Gomez’s books “Collecting Wild Herbs, “Deadly Herbs,” and “Medicinal Fruits & Berries” are available at amazon.com. For additional reading and more, visit my blog at naturechronicles.wordpress.com.