Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Indian Plum

Indian Plum, or Oso Berry (Oemleria cerasiformis, aka Osmaronia cerasiformis), is a northwest harbinger of spring, being one of our first native plants to bloom, and fully leaf out, starting late in winter.  This plant is currently in bloom now, along with our native willow trees.  This wonderful woodland inhabitant provides an early nectar source for mason bees and hummingbirds, and also later provides fruit which a number of bird species will dine on (but which are questionably palatable to humans).  Its growth habit and size makes it more along the lines of a large shrub than a small tree, since its tendency is to sucker at the base growing multiple stems, though it can be pruned into a single stem tree with work each year.  I prefer its shrubby habit (and less pruning) and it complements our natural areas well.

Oso Berry in Spring - Oemleria cerasiformis

I must say that this plant is not always extremely photogenic.  It’s hard to capture the full appeal of Indian Plum this time of year, when its white, dangling blooms hang and sway below the bright green foliage which both work to light up the bare forest floors in which they are often located.  Though their preference is for part shade, they are quite adaptable, growing well in full shade to full sun.  With at least a little shade they can handle dry soil conditions so they are a good choice for those areas beneath mature conifers where not much will grow.  These vigorous growers can also handle somewhat wet conditions in the winter and will easily tolerate clay, though they love a good woodsy, organic soil.

Being dioecious, there are male and female plants, and as such the males have better flower power and only the females will fruit.  Because of their flowery show the male plants are more commonly sold.  Disappointing if you’re wanting some fruit, as that can really draw in a lot of birds in the summer time.  I plan on finding a female this year and taking a cutting so I can start a new plant right next to the male in my yard.  Poor guy’s lonely…

Oso Berry flowers

Osmaronia cerasiformis

Unripened fruit of the Indian Plum, or Oso Berry. These will develop into a dark plum color, with a similar look to commercially-sold plums, though much smaller in size.

I only wish this plant had some noteworthy fall color.  The leaves usually do yellow a little before they drop (which happens earlier in the year than a lot of plants, since it’s one of the first to leaf out) but it’s not spectacular.  But that aside, Indian Plum is a very garden-worthy plant and a great choice for wildlife.


Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Red Twig Dogwood

Some like it wet.  Particularly if you live in the Pacific Northwest.  Here, you wear your raindrops proudly.  Having a soaked shirt is like sporting honorable stripes.  And those rain deflection devices (umbrellas, right?), those are for the tourists and foreigners.  However, put us in a situation with more than a few inches of snow and it’s a winter apocalypse, at least according to the local news stations.  But I digress…

One of the locals perfectly content in the wetness is our native red twig, or red osier, dogwood (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera).  This is a relatively common shrub, or small tree, in low to mid elevation moist to wet sites.  However, “common” really only describes its distribution and availability.  Red twig dogwood is an exceptional plant offering year-round appeal, particularly showy in winter when the color of its branches are intensified to a glowing red to maroon.  This coloration is strongest when the plants are in full sun and on the newer growth.

Dogwood bark

In springtime, attractive mid to dark green, veined leaves (similar to other dogwoods) are born and white flower clusters appear shortly thereafter (May in my yard – and technically they are an inflorescence, and more specifically a cyme) which the bees find irresistible.  Sometimes these plants will rebloom sporadically throughout the year.


Cornus sericea foliage and flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flowers ripen into white berries, which can persist on the plant for quite some time depending on how often the birds come to dine.  Many bird species eat the berries but the regulars in my yard are the robins and cedar waxwings.  I especially appreciate any plant that will draw in the cedar waxwings.

Red Osier Dogwood fall color and white berries

The “googly eye” berries, and stunning fall color, of red twig dogwood

As you can see by the pic above, another outstanding feature of this plant is its red to purple fall color.  In the natural area behind our home there is a grove of mature specimens, which are a little more like small trees than shrubs, and each year I look forward to their fall show, which works wonderfully with the yellow fall color of the nearby pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and the evergreen slough sedges (Carex obnupta) at their feet.

I attribute the poor drainage, high water table and light, open shade conditions behind our home to the beautiful mass that’s back there, but red twig dogwood really is an irregularly adaptable plant, able to withstand summer drought for quite some time when established in the right soil, and also content in full sun to shade conditions.  Just keep in mind that, like most other plants, when placed in more sun red twig dogwood will need more moisture and in full shade the flowering and fruiting will diminish and the leaves will grow larger and thinner to capture more light.

Red twig dogwood is also a great plant for the economical gardener, being inexpensive to incorporate into the garden as it grows easily, and quickly, from cuttings.  Also, the epithet stolonifera from the scientific name refers to the stolons with which it can spread and multiply.  New roots/plants can form when these low, horizontal branches come into contact with the soil, allowing them to form thickets.

You also can’t go too wrong on pruning these dogwoods.  They can withstand severe pruning, and since the most vivid winter branch coloring is on new growth, most people prefer to prune them this way.  It’s recommended that you only cut them down to the ground (technically about 4-6 inches from the ground) every 2 to 3 years, but this could depend on how vigorous the plant is.  Now, late winter, is the time to do this, right before the new spring growth comes.  I think the plants look best when pruned this way, as opposed to doing light cutback pruning.  Or you could just remove a few of the oldest main stems down to the base each year, so you aren’t left with a hole in your garden for a season.  I’m okay with waiting for a season, but this is an indispensable plant, filling a niche in the garden.

Red osier dogwood leaf in snow (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera)

Great Willow Bark!

There is a magical place that comes alive every winter, not far from Portland.  And, fortunately for any local sightseers it is conveniently located right off of I-5, just southeast of Ridgefield Exit 14.  It’s hard to build mystery and anticipation for your reader when your creative subject line is so telling, but yes, I’m talking about a stand of willow trees.  Not your idea of exciting?  Maybe it takes a certain kind of person to get excited about willows, but this beautiful bark just amazes me, and I’m sure all can appreciate it:

Salix lasiandra bark

Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra)

Look how much this tree stands out against the drab backdrop of alders:

Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra

Pacific Willow, disguising as a smokeless flame

As best as I can tell (without being able to examine one up-close, being on private property), these are Pacific Willows (Salix lasiandra), or a type of one.  The bright, yellow-orange stems really helped aid in identification, or supposition, to be accurate.  Since there are around 400 species from the genus Salix, (200+ in cultivation, not counting cultivars), it’s hard to know if you’ve narrowed down that list enough for a definitive answer when trying to identify one, especially since they are cross-fertile plants, often creating hybrids.  I like what OSU’s site has to say about willows:

“As a group, willows are easy to identify – in fact, pussy willows are one of the first trees that many of us learn.  But distinguishing between different types of willows, is a different story.  The reason is that there are so many willows – North America has approximately 90 different types – and that many of the species interbreed, with the offspring having characteristics of both parents.  As a result, most people are satisfied knowing that a tree is a willow, and leave it at that.”

Even with all that family competition, these willow trees really stand out from most others that I’ve seen.  Just imagine this below stand of willows planted with large drifts of our native Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea, syn. Cornus stolonifera), shown here in a previous post.  Red-twig, or Red Osier, Dogwoods share very similar cultural requirements (loving themselves a riparian area) and would not only provide striking bark contrast, but they would also work great proportionately as a foreground plant to these willows, only coming up to about half of their height.

Stand of Salix lasiandra

Willow woods

In general, willows are rather susceptible to pests and diseases, and branch breakage can also be a relatively common occurrence (however, they also re-sprout and re-root easily), but they also come with many benefits which I believe easily outweigh the negatives if you have a large, moist to wet, natural area for them.  Native, riparian willows like these can help provide soil/waterway stabilization with their extensive, fibrous root systems, improve shoreline and aquatic habitat by offering food, shelter and shade (the shade helps reduce temperatures in nearby waterways improving the conditions for many fish), improve water quality, grow quickly to establish a natural screen, and lend a relatively fine texture and movement to a landscape.  Also, the early spring flowers not only add interest to the garden, but are also a great early nectar source for our bees.

I wish we had the room for a few of these willows in our yard, but 6,000 square feet is not going to cut it.  Better add a larger yard to the Christmas list…

Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Vine Maple

Acer circinatum fall color

Vine Maple fall color in full sun

Acer circinatum; it may be a somewhat ubiquitous plant here in the Pacific Northwest but this versatile plant is popular for good reason.  Commonly known as the Vine Maple, it derives its name from its wild, sprawling growth habit when in shaded conditions, and the sinuous, multiple stems it often has.  Some of the most desirable features of this small tree (approximately 15 to 20 feet tall and wide) are its multiple trunks, and its long-lasting parade of colors in the fall, which range from red to yellow and sometimes includes purple.

Vine Maple Flowers

Vine Maple Flowers (Photo credit: wolfnowl)

In early spring Vine Maples sport tiny groups of red and white flowers which develop into attractive red-winged seedpods, or samara, by mid to late spring.  Vine Maples also add some interest to the winter landscape with their unique skeletons and reddish coloring found on the younger branches.

Vine Maples exhibit rather different personalities dependent on the amount of sunlight they receive (boy, can I relate to that).  In more sun, the growth habit will be more upright and dense, and fall color will be stronger, displaying more red and orange hues.  In a shady location growth can be wide, open and sprawling, sometimes even having stems that arch back to the ground which can sprout new growth and roots, creating thickets.  Fall color will be more yellow in this environment, or not noteworthy at all if in deep shade.  I like their traits best in a site that receives just a little afternoon shade, so the leaves have less of a chance of burning, the growth habit is still largely upright and so they still display good fall color.

Acer circinatum fall color in part shade

Vine Maple fall color in part shade, at St. James Church in Vancouver

Thicket of Acer circinatum

Mossy mess of Vine Maples in full shade, creating a thicket

Another thing I really love about vine maples is that you can prune them in many different ways to fill just about any spot in your garden, and they are adaptable, strong growers.  For a taller and more upright habit, completely remove some of the lowest side branches, cutting them off near the trunk, just above the collar; this will also help expose the beautiful base of multiple trunks.  You can also do some cutback pruning on the outer part of the side branches.  This method is recommended if you have one sited close to a structure.  Or you can cut back at the top of the tree which will promote more lateral growth.  Vine Maples can also even be coppiced successfully.

Acer circinatum pruned

I’m not sure what I think about this, but this shows the flexibility you have when designing with Vine Maples. These two trees are in a fair amount of shade, being under an overhang on the north side of a building. It appears they have received pruning from the bottom up, to highlight the multiple trunks, and also regular cutback pruning on top to restrict height and create a low, wide canopy.

When so much in the natural northwest landscape turns yellow this time of year, if any strong color at all, it’s nice to see a plant that’s not afraid to do its own thing.  Enjoy the show while you still can, those remaining tenacious leaves can’t hold much longer.

Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Beaked Hazelnut

I’m not sure whether I should call this plant a large shrub or a small tree, but either way our native Corylus cornuta (var. californica) has quite the late winter show and is a plant worthy of a blog post.  It’s commonly referred to as the Beaked Hazelnut due to the shape of the husks around the edible nuts it produces later in the year, but it’s definitely most showy right now with its creamy yellow catkins drooping and grouped in pairs or triads at the branches ends.  These catkins are the male flowers and the female flowers, which come on the same plant being monoecious, are bright red and threadlike but not as noticeable.  This is a good native choice for segueing between a high-canopy woodland to an open area, not only because of its moderate size (in comparison to the forest) but also because of its preference for just a little shade, although it seems to perform fine in full sun as well (and too much shade will diminish flowering).  It does also appreciate a site that is well-drained.  The leaves that follow its winter show are alder-like in appearance, mid to dark green and serrated around the edges.  Beaked Hazelnut is a suckering plant which can eventually develop many stems and grow wider than tall.

This is a great plant for wildlife, and one that was utilized by Native Americans for food, tools and medicine.  Apparently it was used to help with teething, expelling worms, inducing vomiting and also as an astringent.  However, my attorney advises that I recommend you see a qualified physician if experiencing such problems.

I will also point out that this is a plant grown commercially for its nuts.  Now, if you’re ever on Jeopardy and the category is “Nuts over Corylus cornuta” you should have all the trivialities you need.