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Blooming in Ice: The Cool Symbolism of Plum Blossoms
Why this east Asian flower will warm your heart
The most famous Japanese flower may be the cherry blossom, but the plum blossom is just as special. Long beloved in Japan, plum blossoms have great history and a medley of cultural values.
As February thaws into spring, let’s take a look at the symbolism behind this unique flower!
Plum Blossoms vs. Cherry Blossoms
Much as the cherry blossom has a unique name in Japanese —
sakura — so does the plum blossom:
To the untrained eye, sakura and baika are often mistaken for the other. And that’s fair. The vibrant, pink flowers do share quite a family resemblance (the trees are from the same genus, after all).
Still, there are a few ways to tell them apart:
- Plum trees have stiff, knobbly branches with dark wood; unlike slender and willowy cherry blossom trees.
- Cherry blossoms have long stems; while plum blossoms grow right on the branch.
- Baika have round petals; while sakura petals are notched.
Plum trees are also known by the name of their fruit,
ume. Ume are something between a plum and apricot, a stone fruit that’s super astringent and inedible while raw. When pickled, however, the fruit transforms into
umeboshi, a classic ingredient in traditional Japanese cuisine.
By contrast, sakura trees are almost totally ornamental, and their fruit is not suitable for cooking.
That’s a lot of foreign terms I just threw at you! Don’t worry, here’s the most important thing: Ume refers to both the fruit and the entire tree itself, and baika refers to just the plum blossom.
Ume, like many things in Japan, were actually introduced from China.
Plum blossoms — or
méihuā, in Mandarin — have been cultivated for over 1,500 years! They originated in southern China, along the Yangtze River, and saw a rise in popularity during the Tang dynasty.
Now, the Tang dynasty is pretty important. This era — from 618 AD to 907 AD — is considered the golden age of ancient Chinese civilization. It was this period where China became, as Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin says, “the Jupiter of east Asia,” for how greatly its culture would influence the region.
At the end of the Tang dynasty, China began trading with Japan, ushering in the Nara period. This is also an important time, because this is where Chinese culture became ingrained in Japan. The Chinese writing system, Confucian philosophy, and Chinese Buddhism — all of these were new concepts that became foundations of Japanese society.
Chinese fashion, inventions, and arts were all the rage in the Nara period. And among this pop culture exchange, ume trees were introduced to Japan. Aristocrat and priest alike were enchanted by the beautiful trees, and the Chinese symbolism behind plum blossoms was also embraced.
As they bloom earlier than other plants, plum blossoms represent the thawing of winter, and the changing of seasons. As such, they’ve come to be known as the heralds of spring.
Typically appearing in February, plum blossoms come to life even while covered in frost. Unfazed by cold, they are associated with good health, strong endurance, and overcoming the adversity of winter.
While flower-viewing festivals — or
hanami — are typically associated with cherry blossoms, it was plum blossoms that started this Japanese tradition. Plum blossom season became an event. The upper class would plan parties and events to behold the awakening trees, and it’s hard to blame them. The contrast of dark brown wood, deep pink flower buds, and white snow makes for a truly breathtaking portrait of nature.
Additionally, as spring welcomes the farming season, plum blossoms also symbolize prosperity. Bountiful crop harvests and good fortune are likewise associated.
With these virtues, ume trees are considered a ward against evil spirits. As
feng shui maintains that evil and misfortune blow in from the northeast winds, plum trees are a popular garden tree. You’ll find these trees standing guard in the northeast corner of many a temple and estate.
In the Arts
Like other majestic trees, ume are popular choices for bonsai.
ukiyo-e and other media, plum blossoms usually appear alongside
uguisu — small, green songbirds who are also harbingers of springtime. Truthfully, the birds rarely appear at the same time plum blossoms do, so there’s a bit of romanticism in this pairing.
Still, pink and green are inverted colors, and naturally complement one another. And there is also a lovely contrast, with the gentleness of the bird amid the majesty of the old tree.
In Japan and east Asia, flowers are not seen as fragile or weak, but powerful and noble. The plum blossom has graced many a samurai’s family crest, and it’s also the national flower of China.
Hopefully you have a better appreciation for it after reading this article. Maybe you’ll book a trip to go see them in person!
Plum Blossoms – The Original Japanese Sign Of Spring
While the sakura may be the best-known flower in Japan, the plum blossom holds a special place in Japanese tradition. This article explains the features and the history of this charming bloom.
Closer to my home
I brought them and replanted,
But to no avail;
All they do is keep me waiting,
Those lustrous flowers!
Poem by Fujiwara no Kanesuke (877-933), from the Gosenshū anthology.
The True Flower of Spring: Plum Blossoms
Although I have written extensively on the beauty of sakura, they aren’t my favorite Japanese flower. Not even in my top five. My number one has always been the plum blossom, or ume, as it is called in Japanese.
Image taken from: What Is That Flower On Your Kimono?
With a blooming season that starts in early February in some parts of Japan and may last until the end of March, plum blossoms are considered by historians to be the original flower that started off the tradition of hanami (flower viewing parties) in Japan. Plum trees were initially introduced to Japan from China and were considered ornamental trees intended for the gardens of the nobility and public spaces. Associated with good fortune, plum blossoms, plums, and the trees themselves are thought to ward off evil, so you will often find them planted around shrines, temples, or other spiritual areas.
Plum blossoms are also a common kimono, obi, and Japanese fabric motif, as you can see in the photo above. They are often associated with a sense of maturity, and are also depicted in many works of art alongside the Japanese bush warbler (”uguisu” in Japanese). In fact, if you play the traditional card game hanafuda, the cards for February are illustrated with the ume and the uguisu.
JAPAN PHOTO LIBRARY ©JNTO
Ume remained the de rigueur flower of spring well into the Nara period and the earliest years of the Heian era. But by the time the Heian period had properly started, cherry blossoms had taken the place of the ume, relegating them to a much lesser position within the arts and seasonal activities as a whole.
How and Where to Enjoy the Ume
If you will be traveling in Japan during the months of February and March, be sure to keep an eye out for these flowers. Plum blossoms come in colors ranging from a pink that is almost white to deep pinkish reds, and come in five or multi-petaled varieties. Much like the cherry tree, plum blossoms have also been selectively bred and adapted into different forms over time, leading to varieties such as the yae-ume, which has multiple petals, to the shidare-ume, or weeping plum tree.
To help you tell the difference between plum and cherry blossoms, please take a look at Plum, Cherry, and Peach Blossoms – How To Distinguish Between Them. The easiest way I find to tell them apart, though, is to smell them. Plum blossoms have a strong, sweet scent that lingers just enough in the air.
If you are interested in having a ‘real’ hanami, then I recommend paying a visit to Koishikawa Korakuen, a public park with stunning seasonal flowers and plenty of plum trees to view. Although the weather is a little chilly to sit outside and enjoy the blossoms for long, you can get a hint of what such an event must have been like here.
And if you would like to see a stunning plum blossom festival, then by all means, visit Yushima Tenjin Shrine, which has an annual Ume Matsuri. This event will take place from February 8th to March 8th this year (2017). Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet, and politician who lived during the Heian era, was exceptionally fond of plum blossoms.
According to a legend, it is said that when Michizane was removed from his high scholarly position at the imperial court and appointed to a minor official post in Kyushu’s Dazaifu region, his favorite plum tree flew all the way to Kyushu to be near Michizane. After his later exile and death, Michizane became deified as the god Tenman-Tenjin, which is why all Tenjin or Tenmangu shrines across Japan are famous for their plum blossom festivals. The Dazaifu Tenmangu in Fukuoka is one of the prominent shrines that are popular as destinations for ume blossom viewing.
A branch of plum
Blossoms was his roost,
All completely ruined now;
To the cherry has shifted
The warbler’s song.
– Author unknown, part of the Sengohyakuban Uta Awase (poetry contest in 1201)
The beautiful features of the ume, as well as the fascinating legends surrounding these flowers, make them a symbol of spring that is worth checking out if you’re visiting Japan during the first months of the year.