Love among the Oemlaria

I’ve been as busy as the birds and the bees, sexing Indian Plums (Oemlaria cerasiformis). Eew! You say! What kind of twisted mind does this woman have? Really, it’s not what it sounds like! There is a practical reason for this behavior. You see, Indian Plum is dioecious; male and female flowers are found on separate plants. I am marking blooming Indian Plums in the nursery with tags noting which sex each is, so we can send them out two by two, enabling passionate plum production. Birds love the fruit and distribute the seeds.

The Indian Plums have been waiting; always one of the early bloomers, they were already beginning to unfold their flower clusters at the end of January, preparing to light up the woods like chandeliers, before Mother Nature wrecked the fun with six weeks of serious winter. 17 inches of ice and snow set back love among the Oemlaria. But the last few weeks, they have been strutting their stuff.

Both male and female plants have graceful, dangly greenish-white flower clusters. At the base of each flower in the cluster is a roundish “receptacle”. The male receptacle is empty; the female receptacle holds ovaries resembling future berries. Pollination between the two sexes enables fruit to form. Pollination only happens when the twosome becomes a threesome; an insect (moth, butterfly, bee) or hummingbird joins in the fun. Par-tay!

The easiest way to determine the gender of a blooming Indian Plum: Tweak off one of the tiny open blossoms. Using your thumbnails, vertically divide the flower in half so you can see it in cross-section. Is the “receptacle” at the base of the flower hollow? Then it’s a male plant.

Is the “receptacle” full of five tightly packed, teardrop-shaped pistils (the round part of the pistil is the ovary)? Yes? Female! Tah-dah! Now you, too, can impress friends, relatives and future mates with your arcane blossom-sexing skills!

Once you have shredded enough blossoms, you literally “get a feel” for which flowers are male (squishier) and which are female (fatter, firmer, lumpier). Destruction is no longer necessary; a gentle squeeze at the base of the flower suffices.

After learning what to look for, you can look into the depths of a flower and recognize the male features – showy yellow balls of pollen above deep-green space (this is a male flower pictured)– and female attributes – just-discernible, waxy, light green ovaries at the base of the pistils.

Read more about Indian Plum on our blog: Habitat Heroes

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