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.

For Winter Color, Bring in the Birds

When flora takes more of a backseat in winter, encourage the fauna to liven up your yard.  For the birds, a little seed goes a long ways.  Your reward will be their colorful plumage, euphonious sounds and entertaining behavior.  Of course, an ideal bird-friendly yard will seek to meet all of their needs, but I’ve been surprised at how many birds have been flocking to my yard with the simple addition of cheap seed and suet.  I feel as though I now have the bird-summoning power of Mary Poppins (still trying to find out where I can buy seed for only tuppence a bag though).  Although I must admit, even though I’ve only provided some additional food, I am very fortunate to live adjacent to a park with wetlands and natural areas, where water is always available and the forests and thickets allow for their protection and shelter.  That probably (definitely) has something to do with it…

Just keep in mind that if you decide to feed the birds in winter, it’s recommended that you continue to do so through the remainder of the season, at least through the particularly cold, icy or snowy times, when natural food sources may be hard for them to get to.  This is particularly true if you have hummingbirds that have decided to stick out the winter with you.  Keep an eye on any nectar feeders to be sure they haven’t frozen over, and keep the nectar fresh.  A simple mixture of one part sugar to four parts water (boiled then cooled) will work nicely.

As part of my developing avian avocation I’ve been trying to improve my photography skills.  I think sometimes it’s easy to underestimate the refinement of skill (and patience) needed in any given activity when you have yet to fully delve into it.  However, as it often goes, the more you know about something, the more you realize you don’t know.  I keep learning this lesson in gardening, and such is the case with bird photography.  I never realized it would be such a challenge getting those little guys in focus, even after having multiple photography classes in the past.  I thought getting great shots of birds would be somewhat comparable to getting great shots of plants.  It turns out plants are a bit easier to sneak up on.  I may need to move the feeders a little closer to the house, but they are right at the forest edge where the birds feel comfortable.  I still managed to get a few good shots though which I saved for you.

This last weekend I had the big, winter-time three in my yard all at once – the Northern Flicker, the Scrub Jay and the Varied Thrush.  For my specific habitat these are the largest birds that will somewhat regularly show up in my yard this time of year.  I’ve heard of Scrub Jays referred to as nuisance birds, but I enjoy their company and great coloring.  They normally scare off the other birds when they show up but this Varied Thrush didn’t seem intimidated (the Scrub Jay’s bill is pointing at him if you have a hard time finding him).

And what a beautiful bird the Varied Thrush is, with their great orange coloring and unique markings.  This is a bird that loves to rummage through the leaf litter, looking for little critters or other treats on the ground to eat.  The females have more muted coloring, but are also beautiful.  It’s funny though, as I’ve noticed the male Varied Thrush gets along fine with the other birds, but when that female Thrush comes along, he’ll chase her away in no time.  Maybe there was a bad breakup in their past.

Ixoreus naeviusMy favorite backyard bird though is the Northern Flicker.  What a beautiful woodpecker, especially when in flight, when you can more easily see the reddish-orange coloring on the undersides of their wings and tail.  Here’s a red-shafted one performing some acrobatics on the suet feeder.

Northern Flicker doing some acrobatics

Colaptes auratusWe tend to like yards manicured and tidy.  Not the birds.  We keep our yards “clean” to their detriment.  Though I can’t say I would blame anyone for not wanting a decaying, broken-down tree in their yard (and one could pose a valid safety concern), it sure would make a great home, and food source, for one of these cavity-nesting Flickers.  It’s just a shame that there are not more areas that are able to be left in their natural state, where nature can take its course uninterrupted.  Even our parks are all too often overly domesticated, with large expanses of sod consuming them, which are also regularly mowed.  One thing we can easily control, however, is our use of pesticides and herbicides.  When we use herbicides we actually destroy not just the unwanted weedy plants, but also some of the microbial life in our soil, which ultimately can have an affect on that which is connected to it, including the birds.  Also, when we use pesticides we may be successful in killing the insects, but we should also be aware that this will not only deplete the amount of them available for birds to feed on, but this can also lead to the poisoning of birds if these sprayed insects are later consumed.  Keep in mind that most insects are beneficial or neutral to your yard’s well-being.  Experts who study insect populations estimate that more than 90 percent of insects are either harmless or actually help control other pests.  Some may be more of a nuisance one year if they have had favorable weather conditions, but it is normal to see an ebb and flow in insect populations from year to year.  I’ve learned though that many insect “problems” will naturally work themselves out over time, without lasting or serious damage to the infested plants, but if in fact control methods are needed, there are plenty of environmentally no- or low-impact solutions available to employ.

As I finish typing this a new-to-our-yard woodpecker just jumped on the back of the suet feeder.  It’s hard to tell, but it looks like it may be a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker.  I’m thankful for the excitement and joy that comes when new birds stop by to visit.  It’s great to be rewarded with their beauty and antics for just a small amount of planning and work.