In the plum blossom scent, the sun pops out, a mountain path
While the kan may have officially come and gone, there is still little sign of spring. The days are getting longer – the sun doesn’t set until after 5:00 these days – but the cold weather, especially the icy cold in the mornings, continues. Looking for signs of spring, I can see that the magnolias are beginning to bud, the cold north-westerly winds generate dust storms and add time to my commute to work. There is, however, a better candidate – ume.
Ume (Prunus mume) is a plant lost in translation – it is widely known as the Chinese plum or Japanese apricot, while its flowers are often translated as plum blossom. It is also known by the Chinese name mei or mai, the Japanese name ume, or its scientific name mume. The latter is sometimes said to be derived from Chinese.
Since the plant is neither plum nor apricot – it actually sits between the two – I’ll use the name ume here.
Ume (梅) is originally from China and was brought to Japan around the 6th or 7th centuries. Growing between four and 10 metres in height, it is valued for its fragrant blossoms and fruit. The trees blossom – in the Kanto, at least – from February to early March, producing five-petalled flowers (although double blossoms are also known) in various shades, from white to pink to red.
The white blossoms are commonly known as hakubai (白梅), and the red ones as kobai (紅梅).
The blossoms are also prized for their fragrance, which is noticeably absent in cherry blossoms.
Originally, flower-viewing parties meant either ume or wisteria until the Heian period, when cherry blossom became the norm. Even so, there is poetry dating from this era which praises the ume over the cherry.
Blossoming in winter has also earned the ume a place in the “three friends of winter” next to pine and bamboo. Ume designs are often found on New Year greeting cards, and small potted ume are sold as New Year ornaments.
Moreover, the blossom has found its way into several heraldic designs.
In addition to its blossom, the ume is valued for its fruit. Many of these are pickled with salt and are called umeboshi. Ume are also used in jams, dipping sauces and juices.
My personal favourite, however, is umeshu, a liqueur made from white spirits, ume and sugar. This is typically steeped for six months to a year, but I once had the pleasure of receiving a small bottle of 25 year-old umeshu, dark and syrupy, in which even the stones of the fruit had dissolved.
Around the time the fruit ripens, the East Asian monsoon season sets in. This is known as tsuyu or baiu in Japan, and is written 梅雨, literally “ume rain”.
Owing to its gnarly wood and relative hardiness, the ume is also a favoured subject for bonsai. There is even a specific word for this – bonbai.
The ume is the official flower of dozens of cities, towns and wards in Japan, and as I write this, the parks and gardens boasting thousands of ume trees will be gearing up for the tourists coming to see the blossoms.
I may or may not be able to make a trip out so far, but luckily there are are few ume trees on my commute. Now all I need is some warmth! (And a glass of umeshu…)