Sunday, April 19, 2009

Prunus munsoniana

For many, spring is ushered in by the purple reign of Eastern Redbud or the snowy white of Flowering Dogwood. While I also put the winter blues behind me at the sight of these old faithfuls, I find Wild Goose Plum a more accurate measure of the seasonal fulcrum. Blooming a solid two weeks earlier than the more cliché spring trees mentioned above, I like how rebellious it is in the face of a late freeze. It softly represents the more unique and less vulgar aspects of nature’s palate.

Wild Goose Plum (Prunus munsoniana) begins blooming at the end of March and reaches its peak bloom by the second week of April. Unlike Flowering Dogwood which seems to have a more regionally synchronized phenology, Prunus munsoniana has no rhyme or reason to its blooming window; I speculate this temporal heterogeneity is a consequence of blooming closer to potential late freezes. Be it patches in the same field or scattered colonies along miles of highway, you will often see a full spectrum of floral progression even within populations.

If you don’t already know this plant, you probably have noticed it. Especially if you, like me, cannot help but botanize while driving. It is the white flowered shrub that forms light, pillow-like colonies along prairie edges, fence rows and old fields throughout the Ozarks (see photos below). It seems especially common along the major ridge systems of the Ozarks (Salem Plateau, Springfield Plateau and their secondary branches) where prairie expanses as well as humble openings once dominated. The growth form of the colony is very sumac-like, in that the center of the colony is tallest and the sprouts get shorter toward the periphery. And like sumac, fire can be stand replacing; from which it quickly resprouts with added vigor.

The flowers are small and classically Rosaceae (see photo below). They open just a few days before the leaf buds burst. By the time the leaves have unfurled, they are on their way to fruit. The fruit is a small edible plum from which many cultivated plums have been derived. So the story goes, one Captain Means of Tennessee shot a goose and from its craw extracted a plum seed. He planted said seed and so enjoyed the fruits that he made it commercially available as the “Goose Plum". Personally, I have never eaten the fruit. In fact, from all my botanical roving I have yet to find a ripe wild plum of any species (P. hortula, P. mexicana, or P. americana).

Part of the charm of this humble shrub is that once the flowers have faded along with the chilly nights of spring, it practically vanishes from the landscape. It must be just inconspicuous enough to go undetected. Much like Rhamnus lanceolata, this otherwise common element of our flora is rarely noticed for the greater part of the growing season.

When I see it blooming in the spring I always promise to remember the location of each sweet little harbinger in their gentle mounds along the road to town. But the ensuing spring fever and the swift current of life invariably wash it from my mind and I don’t think on it again. That is until the following March, when my feet start itching and my eyes keep looking out the window for that first sign, that true resurrection, of spring. For me, there is no waiting for Dogwoods and evidently no looking back.