Saturday, April 04, 2009


One of my friends asked me about the plants at Hedgebrook and I had to laugh because I spent a good amount of time in my cottage writing about plants and not so much walking around in the woods and meadow and garden. Finally one sunny afternoon I grabbed my favorite plant identification book, Wild Plants of Seattle by Arthur Lee Jacobson, and went for a walk in the woods.

There are people who walk through a museum reading the captions and then stepping back and looking at the pictures, and people who just look at the pictures and let them soak in. I have to admit I am one of the former. Likewise there are people who walk through the woods, thumbing through the pages of a book trying to identify plants and people who just commune with the plants. Guess which one I am? Actually I had a good excuse. I was working on an essay about identifying plants.

I didn’t get too far into the woods because I was struck when I walked into a nearby clearing by a plant I had never seen before. It seemed to be alight in the dimness of the woods, all the leaves lifting straight up towards the sky like bright-green candles. I was able to identify it because Jacobson captured this quality in his description of the plant: “as the young green leaves awaken, they illuminate the woods with tender fresh greenery.” The photograph taken by Alyss in Portland really captures this quality. The leaves have the delightful smell and flavor of bitter cucumber.

This deciduous shrub is an osoberry, so named because bears (oso is the Spanish word for bear—I know that from going to Camp Osito as a Girl Scout) like the berries. Jacobson also gives alternate names as Indian Plum or Cherry, Squaw Plum , Bird Cherry and Skunk Bush. The scientific name is Oelemeria cerasiformis and it’s a member of the rose family (as are plums and cherries).

The common names refer to the fruit: bluish-black berries which are favorites of the birds. Jacobson says they are “juicy and melon-flavored [but] marred by a bitter tinge and big pits.” The name Skunk Bush (I assume) comes from the stinky flowers. I brought just one spray into my cottage to sketch and quickly regretted it. The flowers are delicate looking, tiny packages of petals held on drooping stems, almost like lilies of the valley, with raggedy edges but they have a terrible smell.

Every time I learn about a new plant, I fall in love with it and osoberry is my new emblem of spring.


joanna said...

I bet you have seen Osoberry many many times, yet never really recognized it. It is everywhere in our PNW woods, but only stands out in the early spring. It is the first native plant to leaf out each year. I love it. And yes, the flowers are very stinky! In another few months, osoberry will be just another understory shrub, mixing in with huckleberry and vine maples, under the cedars and hemlocks and Doug firs. But now, oh that bright near-chartreuese green just shakes me out of winter's doldrums.

Tan Family said...

It's always such a pleasure to discover and learn about new plants! I love your blog.

Alyss said...

Ours here in Portland are in full bloom. I've never noticed the smell, now I'll have to check it out :) I think it's so funny - the new leaves stick up like candles on the edge of the twigs, but the flowers droop down like they can't hold themselves up anymore :)

Waverly Fitzgerald said...

I hardly ever walk in the woods. I don't think there are really any osoberries in my urban neighborhood. But you're right, in the woods, it's hard to miss.

Tan Family,
I love learning about new plants too. I'm trying to learn at least one new one a week.

You're the leaves and flowers go in two different directions. You will be unpleasantly surprised by the smell of the flowers. But try tasting a leaf!