The Prunus mume is an Asian tree species classified in the Armeniaca section of the genus Prunus subgenus Prunus. Its common names include Chinese plum and Japanese apricot. The flower is usually called plum blossom. This distinct tree species is related to both the plum and apricot trees. Although generally referred to as a plum in English, it is more closely related to the apricot. In Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking, the fruit of the tree is used in juices, as a flavouring for alcohol, as a pickle and in sauces. It is also used in traditional medicine.
The tree's flowering in late winter and early spring is highly regarded as a seasonal symbol.
Prunus mume came from in the south of mainland China around the Yangtze River and was later introduced to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. It can be found in sparse forests, stream sides, forested slopes along trails and mountains, sometimes at altitudes up to 1,700–3,100 metres (5,600–10,200 ft), and regions of cultivation.
Prunus mume is a deciduous tree that starts to flower in mid-winter, typically around January until late February in East Asia. It can grow to 4–10 metres (13–33 ft) tall. The flowers are 2–2.5 centimetres (0.79–0.98 in) in diameter and have a strong fragrant scent. They have colors in varying shades of white, pink, and red. The leaves appear shortly after the petals fall, are oval-shaped with a pointed tip, and are 4–8 cm long and 2.5–5 cm wide. The fruit ripens in early summer, around June and July in East Asia, and coincides with the rainy season of East Asia, the meiyu (梅雨, "plum rain"). The drupe is 2–3 centimetres (0.79–1.18 in) in diameter with a groove running from the stalk to the tip. The skin turns yellow, sometimes with a red blush, as it ripens, and the flesh becomes yellow. The tree is cultivated for its fruit and flowers.
The plant is known by a number of different names in English, including Chinese plum and Japanese apricot. An alternative name is ume, from Japanese, or mume, from the scientific name. Another alternative name is mei, from the Chinese name.
The flower is known as the meihua (梅花) in Chinese, which came to be translated as "plum blossom" or sometimes as "flowering plum". The term "winter plum" may be used too, specifically with regard to the depiction of the flower with its early blooming in Chinese painting.
In Chinese it is called méi (梅) and the fruit is called méizi (梅子). The Japanese name is ume (kanji: 梅; hiragana: うめ), while the Korean name is maesil (hangul: 매실; hanja: 梅實). The Japanese and Korean terms derive from Middle Chinese, in which the pronunciation is thought to have been muəi. The Vietnamese name is mai or mơ (although mai vàng refers to a different plant, Ochna integerrima, in southern Vietnam).
In China, there are over 300 recorded cultivars of Prunus mume. These are divided into three groups by phylogenetics (P. mume and hybrids). These are further classified by the type of branches: upright (直枝梅類), pendulous (垂枝梅類), and tortuous (龍游梅類); and by the characteristics of the flower. Some varieties are especially famed for their ornamental value, including the hongmei (红梅), taigemei, zhaoshuimei (照水梅), lü'emei (绿萼梅), longyoumei (龍游梅), and chuizhimei (垂枝梅).
As the plum tree can usually grow for a long time, ancient trees are found throughout China. Huangmei (Yellow Mei) in Hubei features a 1,600-year-old plum tree from the Jin Dynasty which is still flowering.
In Japan, ornamental Prunus mume cultivars are classified into yabai (wild), hibai (red), and bungo (Bungo Province) types. The bungo trees are also grown for fruit and are hybrids between Prunus mume and apricot. The hibai trees have red heartwood and most of them have red flowers. The yabai trees are also used as grafting stock.
In mainland China and Taiwan, suānméitāng (酸梅汤/酸梅湯; "sour plum juice") is made from smoked plums, called wūméi (乌梅/烏梅). The plum juice is extracted by boiling smoked plums in water and sweetened with sugar to make suanmeitang. It ranges from light pinkish-orange to purplish black in colour and often has a smoky and slightly salty taste. It is traditionally flavoured with sweet osmanthus flowers, and is enjoyed chilled, usually in summer.
In Korea, both the flowers and the fruits are used to make tea. Maehwa-cha (매화차; "plum blossom tea") is made by infusing the flowers in hot water. Maesil-cha (매실차; "plum tea") is made by mixing water with maesil-cheong (plum syrup) and is served either hot or cold. In Japan, similar drink made from green plums, tastes sweet and tangy, is considered a cold, refreshing drink and is often enjoyed in the summer.
A thick, sweet Chinese sauce called méijiàng (梅酱) or méizijiàng (梅子酱), usually translated as "plum sauce", is also made from the plums, along with other ingredients such as sugar, vinegar, salt, ginger, chili, and garlic. Similar to duck sauce, it is used as a condiment for various Chinese dishes, including poultry dishes and egg rolls.
In Korea, maesil-cheong (매실청, "plum syrup"), an anti-microbial syrup made by sugaring ripe plums, is used as a condiment and sugar substitute. It can be made by simply mixing plums and sugar together, and then leaving them for about 100 days. To make syrup, the ratio of sugar to plum should be at least 1:1 to prevent fermentation, by which the liquid may turn into plum wine. The plums can be removed after 100 days, and the syrup can be consumed right away, or mature for a year or more.
Plum liquor, also known as plum wine, is popular in both Japan and Korea, and is also produced in China. Umeshu (梅酒; "plum wine") is a Japanese alcoholic drink made by steeping green plums in shōchū (clear liquor). It is sweet and smooth. A similar liquor in Korea, called maesil-ju (매실주; "plum wine"), is marketed under various brand names, including Mae hwa soo, Matchsoon and Seoljungmae. Both the Japanese and Korean varieties of plum liquor are available with whole plum fruits contained in the bottle. In China, plum wine is called méijiǔ (梅酒).
In Taiwan, a popular 1950s innovation over the Japanese-style plum wine is the wūméijiǔ (烏梅酒; "smoked plum liquor"), which is made by mixing two types of plum liquor, méijiǔ (梅酒) made of P. mume and lǐjǐu (李酒) made of P. salicina, and oolong tea liquor.
In Chinese cuisine, plums pickled with vinegar and salt are called suānméizi (酸梅子; "sour plum fruits"), and have an intensely sour and salty flavour. They are generally made from unripe plum fruits. Huamei (话梅) are Chinese preserved plums and refers to Chinese plums pickled in sugar, salt, and herbs. There are two general varieties: a dried variety, and a wet (pickled) variety.
Umeboshi (梅干) are pickled and dried plums. They are a Japanese specialty. Pickled with coarse salt, they are quite salty and sour, and therefore eaten sparingly. They are often red in colour when purple shiso leaves are used. Plums used for making umeboshi are harvested in late May or early June, while they are still green, and layered with salt. They are weighed down with a heavy stone (or some more modern implement) until late August. They are then dried in the sun on bamboo mats for several days (they are returned to the salt at night). The flavonoid pigment in shiso leaves gives them their distinctive colour and a richer flavour. Umeboshi are generally eaten with rice as part of a bento (boxed lunch), although they may also be used in makizushi (rolled sushi). Umeboshi are also used as a popular filling for rice balls (onigiri) wrapped in laver. Makizushi made with plums may be made with either umeboshi or bainiku (umeboshi paste), often in conjunction with green shiso leaves. A byproduct of umeboshi production is umeboshi vinegar, a salty, sour condiment.
Prunus mume is a common fruit in Asia and used in traditional Chinese medicine. It has long been used as a traditional drug and healthy food in East Asian countries. A recent study has indicated that Prunus mume extract is a potential candidate for developing an oral antimicrobial agent to control or prevent dental diseases associated with several oral pathogenic bacteria. Recent studies have also shown that Prunus mume extract may inhibit Helicobacter pylori, associated with gastritis and gastric ulcers. Experiments on rats suggest that P. mume extract administered during endurance exercise training may enhance the oxidative capacity of exercising skeletal muscle, and may induce the muscle to prefer fatty acids for its fuel use rather than amino acids or carbohydrates, thus assisting endurance.
Plum blossoms have been well loved and celebrated across East Asia
The plum blossom, which is known as the meihua (梅花), is one of the most beloved flowers in China and has been frequently depicted in Chinese art and poetry for centuries. The plum blossom is seen as a symbol of winter and a harbinger of spring. The blossoms are so beloved because they are viewed as blooming most vibrantly amidst the winter snow, exuding an ethereal elegance, while their fragrance is noticed to still subtly pervade the air at even the coldest times of the year. Therefore, the plum blossom came to symbolize perseverance and hope, as well as beauty, purity, and the transitoriness of life. In Confucianism, the plum blossom stands for the principles and values of virtue. More recently, it has also been used as a metaphor to symbolize revolutionary struggle since the turn of the 20th century.
Because it blossoms in the cold winter, the plum blossom is regarded as one of the "Three Friends of Winter", along with pine, and bamboo. The plum blossom is also regarded as one of the "Four Gentlemen" of flowers in Chinese art together with the orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. It is one of the "Flowers of the Four Seasons", which consist of the orchid (spring), the lotus (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn) and the plum blossom (winter). These groupings are seen repeatedly in the Chinese aesthetic of art, painting, literature, and garden design.
An example of the plum blossom's literary significance is found in the life and work of poet Lin Bu (林逋) of the Song dynasty (960–1279). For much of his later life, Lin Bu lived in quiet reclusion on a cottage by West Lake in Hangzhou, China. According to stories, he loved plum blossoms and cranes so much that he considered the plum blossom of Solitary Hill at West Lake as his wife and the cranes of the lake as his children, thus he could live peacefully in solitude. One of his most famous poems is "Little Plum Blossom of Hill Garden" (山園小梅). The original Chinese text as well as a translation follows:
When everything has faded they alone shine forth,
As with the literary culture amongst the educated of the time, Lin Bu's poems were discussed in several Song dynasty era commentaries on poetry. Wang Junqing remarked after quoting the third and fourth line: "This is from Lin Hejing's [Lin Bu's] plum blossom poem. Yet these lines might just as well be applied to the flowering apricot, peach, or pear."—a comparison of the flowers with the plum blossom to which the renowned Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡) replied, "Well, yes, they might. But I'm afraid the flowers of those other trees wouldn't presume to accept such praise." Plum blossoms inspired many people of the era.
Legend has it that once on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, while Princess Shouyang (壽陽公主), daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song (劉宋武帝), was resting under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees after wandering in the gardens, a plum blossom drifted down onto her fair face, leaving a floral imprint on her forehead that enhanced her beauty further. The court ladies were said to be so impressed that they started decorating their own foreheads with a small delicate plum blossom design. This is also the mythical origin of the floral fashion, meihua zhuang (梅花妝; literally "plum blossom makeup"), that originated in the Southern Dynasties (420–589) and became popular amongst ladies in the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. Princess Shouyang is celebrated as the goddess of the plum blossom in Chinese culture.
During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the garden designer Ji Cheng wrote his definitive garden architecture monograph Yuanye and in it he described the plum tree as the "beautiful woman of the forest and moon". The appreciation of nature at night plays an important role in Chinese gardens, for this reason there are classical pavilions for the tradition of viewing plum blossoms by the moonlight. The flowers are viewed and enjoyed by many as annual plum blossom festivals take place in the blooming seasons of the meihua. The festivals take place throughout China (for example, West Lake in Hangzhou and scenic spots near Zijin Mountain in Nanjing amongst other places). Plum blossoms are often used as decoration during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and remain popular in the miniature gardening plants of the art penjing. Branches of plum blossoms are often arranged in porcelain or ceramic vases, such as the meiping (literally "plum vase"). These vases can hold single branches of plum blossoms and are traditionally used to display the blossoms in a home since the early Song dynasty (960–1279).
The Moy Yat lineage of Wing Chun kung fu uses a red plum flower blossom as its symbol. The plum blossoms are featured on one of the four flowers that appear on mahjong tile sets, where mei (梅) is usually simply translated as "plum" in English.
The National Flower of the Republic of China was officially designated as the plum blossom (Prunus Mei; Chinese: 梅花) by the Executive Yuan of the Republic of China on July 21, 1964. The plum blossom is symbol for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity during the harsh winter. The triple grouping of stamens (three stamens per petal) on the national emblem represents Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People, while the five petals symbolize the five branches of the government. It also serves as the logo of China Airlines, the national carrier of Taiwan (the Republic of China). The flower is featured on some New Taiwan dollar coins.
In Korea, the plum blossom is a symbol for spring. It is a popular flower motif, amongst other flowers, for Korean embroidery. Maebyong are plum vases derived from the Chinese meiping and are traditionally used to hold branches of plum blossoms in Korea.
Plum blossoms are often mentioned in Japanese poetry as a symbol of spring. When used in haiku or renga, they are a kigo or season word for early spring. The blossoms are associated with the Japanese bush warbler and depicted together on one of the twelve suits of hanafuda (Japanese playing cards). Plum blossoms were favored during the Nara period (710–794) until the emergence of the Heian period (794–1185) in which the cherry blossoms was preferred.
Japanese tradition holds that the ume functions as a protective charm against evil, so the ume is traditionally planted in the northeast of the garden, the direction from which evil is believed to come. The eating of the pickled fruit for breakfast is also supposed to stave off misfortune.
In Vietnam, due to the beauty of the tree and its flowers, the word mai is used to name girls. The largest hospital in Hanoi is named Bạch Mai (white plum blossom), another hospital in Hanoi is named Mai Hương ("the scent of plum"), situated in Hong Mai (pink plum blossom) street. Hoàng Mai (yellow plum blossom) is the name of a district in Hanoi. Bạch Mai is also a long and old street in Hanoi. All these places are located in the south part of Hanoi, where, in the past, many P. mume trees were grown.
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P. mume had its origin in South China around the Yangtze River (Kyotani, 1989b).
For example, the Huadian or forehead decoration was said to have originated in the South Dynasty, when the Shouyang Princess was taking a walk in the palace in early spring and a light breeze brought a plum blossom onto her forehead. The plum blossom for some reason could not be washed off or removed in any way. Fortunately, it looked beautiful on her, and all of a sudden became all the rage among the girls of the commoners. It is therefore called the "Shouyang makeup" or the "plum blossom makeup." This makeup was popular among women for a long time in the Tang and Song Dynasties.
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