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Chinese Plum - The Loner that Braves the Bitter Cold

Originally published in Green Country, Issue 124 (Feb 2017)
Author: Green Power

Spring is the season of flowers bloom. Yet there always seems to be exception in our earthly world. Chinese Plum, the lone flower that blossoms in deep winter time, thus embodies the virtues of hardiness, perseverance and solitude.

Chinese Plum (Prunus mume) originated in southern China, from areas beside the Yangtze River, and was introduced to Korea and Japan as an ornamental species in ancient times. The trees we now find in Hong Kong were also cultivars. Chinese Plum belongs to the Genus Prunus of the Rosaceae Family. The small deciduous tree prefers warmth and dryness, but is also cold-tolerant. It braves even the snowy season, and has long been a subject of celebration in the Chinese literary world, for its association with good virtues including perseverance.

The flowering period of Chinese Plum lasts from late winter to early spring. Its buds are formed as early as in August, yet they only blossom upon encountering cold weather. In fact, as the temperature goes down in autumn, the plant enters dormancy with the release of some hormones. At this time, the leaves fall off and plant growth stops. After a period of time, however, the hormones will have decomposed, and flower buds continue to grow and blossom. Therefore, low temperature is indeed the key to Chinese Plum flowering. This is called vernalisation.

Wild Chinese Plum flowers are white or pale pink. The five petals are obovate and orderly arranged. In cultivar species, there may be single layer or multiple layers of petals, depending on the number and arrangement of the petals. The flower grows individually or paired in the bud, with a short flower stalk or without flower stalk, and appears like snowflake on the branch. The flowers have a subtle scent, a feature that is well depicted in the poem by Wang Anshi of the Song dynasty: "I know from the distance they are not snow, for their faint fragrance finds its way to my nose."

Chinese Plum Fruits

In full bloom, the tree abounds with flowers, without leaves. But as the flowers wither and fall off, the leaves emerges, as the tree displays yet another form of beauty. The fruiting period is from May to June. The round, yellowish or greenish white fruits are 2 to 3 cm in diameter, and covered with soft hair. The ripe fruits are edible or can be used as medicine. In the southern China regions where Chinese Plum thrives, the fruiting time overlaps with the rainy season. Hence, people often call it the time of Mei (Chinese Plum) rain.

A Beautiful Misunderstanding

In Chinese, "Mei" and misfortune are homophones, and thus the plant is unwelcome to some people. There is also much confusion between Chinese Plum and Peach (Prunus persica). Both belong to the Genus Prunus of Rosaceae Family, look much alike and have similar flowering periods. A joke has it that some people who wish to find their better-half go for a walk under the Chinese Plum instead of Peach trees as they intended. Both trees have flowers that grow directly out of the branches; the difference is that Chinese Plum produces flowers before the leaves, and has rounder petals and stronger scent. The Peach, on the other hand, often produces flowers and leaves at the same time. Pay more attention and you can readily distinguish the two in future!

Vigorous blooming of Chinese Plum in deep winter.
Image "DSC08429" by ume-y is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Chinese Plum flowers can withstand frost and snow.
Image "매화 Prunus mume" by bastus416 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Chinese Plum has notable red leaf stalks.
Plum fruits
Image "梅嶺的梅子" by Ting W. Chang is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Chinese Plum (above) and Peach (below) look very similar. The former produces flowers before the leaves, while the latter produces both at the same time.
Image "Prunus mume" by Koichi Oda is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Image "IMGP0072.JPG" by oloredby is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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