China TRADITION

Chinese Plum

Also known as the Japanese Apricot, the Chinese plum tree is a celebrated symbol of endurance, virtue, and longevity.

The Chinese plum tree is a celebrated symbol of endurance, virtue, and longevity.

According to research, Prunus mume, this is its botanic name, was domesticated in China more than 3,000 years ago. It probably spread to the neighboring countries along with Buddhism. 

Prunus mume is an ornamental plant and fruit crop grown in East Asian countries. Its white to pink little flowers appear in late winter and early spring, even before the snow melts. Widely celebrated in Chinese poems, the plum blossoms represent endurance, virtue, and longevity, announcing the start of a new cycle of life after the cold season.

In China, the plum is widely considered as the symbol of winter where it is associated with endurance (耐力, Nàilì ) and hope (希望, Xīwàng ) and also representing early Spring.

Its fragrant little flowers appear at the end of the cold season, just before the snow melts, announcing that spring will come soon. In Chinese culture, the plum tree symbolizes endurance, virtue, and longevity. Its beauty and symbolism have inspired generations of East Asian poets and artists.

In Chinese culture, there are many examples of idioms taking the meihua, the plum blossom, as a symbol of endurance. Here is one known by almost every Chinese:

宝剑锋从磨砺出,梅花香自苦寒来

Bǎojiàn fēng cóng mólì chū, méihuā xiāng zì kǔhán lái

Literally, this translates into:

The cutting edge of a sword comes from sharpening, the fragrance of the plum blossom from the bitter winter.

This means that to resist the adversities of life, to succeed, you have to make efforts and persevere, like the plum blossom, enduring the harsh winter and then offering an intense fragrance announcing that spring is coming.

To resist the adversities of life, to succeed, you have to make efforts and persevere, like the plum blossom, enduring the harsh winter and then offering an intense fragrance announcing that spring is coming.

The Chinese Plum is the humble star of the Chinese Spring Festival. During the celebrations of the Chinese New Year, the plum blossoms always have their place as an auspicious wish of good fortune and prosperity.

Chinese plum tree – Prunus mume

The Chinese Plum is also Mei, from its Chinese name 梅 (méi), Ume, from its Japanese name, and Japanese apricot.
It is a deciduous tree belonging to the Rosaceae botanic family and to the species Prunus mume.
It can reach up to 10 meters.
It is appreciated as an ornamental plant, as food, and for its medicinal properties.

Prunus mume is originally from southwest China, where it has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. According to the Flora of China, this tree is “native in W Sichuan and W Yunnan” and “cultivated throughout most of China, particularly in areas S of the Chang Jiang” also known as Yangtze River, as well as “in Japan, Korea, N Laos, and N Vietnam.” It is likely that the plum then spread to Korea and Japan with Buddhism.

The fruit

In Japan, the fruits of the plum tree are an important part of the Japanese culinary tradition, particularly in their pickled form called umeboshi, literally meaning “dried plums.”

The Chinese plum belongs to the Rosaceae, the family of the Rose, and the genus Prunus, like the cherry tree (Prunus avium), the peach (Prunus persica), the apricot (Prunus armeniaca), and prunes (Prunus domestica). The closest relative of Prunus mume is the apricot, so it is often referred to as the “Japanese apricot.”

Prunus mume‘s fruit, the plum, is common in Asia. It is usually harvested in June when the plums are ripening, pickled in barrels with sea salt. In Japan, they are added with the powder of red shiso leaves and then dried in the sun.

Chinese plum tree fruit drying in the sun.

In Japan, people use to add umeboshi to flavor and garnish food like rice, particularly on rice bowls and bento, in a design reminding of the Japanese national flag.

Traditional Medicine Uses of Prunus mume

Extracts of the fruits are used in Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine and various Korean medical preparations for more than 2000 years.

Scientific research seems to confirm many of the benefits recognized by traditional medicine, showing the great potential of this plant as anti-osteoporosis, anti-oxidant, anti-obesity, anti-cholesterol, and anti-cancer.

It is clear why the plum tree has become the symbol of perseverance, virtue, and longevity in Chinese culture.


Bibliography

Yan XT et al, Evaluation of the antioxidant and anti-osteoporosis activities of chemical constituents of the fruits of Prunus mume, Food Chem. 2014 Aug 1;156:408-15 
(2) Daozong Xia et al., Antioxidant activity of Chinese mei (Prunus mume) and its active phytochemicals, Vol.4(12), pp. 1156-1160 , June 2010
(3) Seneviratne CJ et al., Prunus mume extract exhibits antimicrobial activity against pathogenic oral bacteria, Int J Paediatr Dent. 2011 Jul;21(4):299-305. 
(4) Pitchford P., Healing with Whole Foods – Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, North Atlantic Books, 2002

(5)Bailly C. Anticancer properties of Prunus mume extracts (Chinese plum, Japanese apricot). J Ethnopharmacol. 2020 Jan 10;246:112215. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2019.112215. Epub 2019 Sep 3. PMID: 31491438.

This article was first published in Day by day Plants in November 2015. Last updated 31st October 2020.

Photo credits

Cover (c)iStockphoto.com/seefeuer. Media Card (c)iStockphoto.com/casaciro. Chinese plum fruits (c) Noriko Bussenault

About Valentina

Hi, I’m Valentina. I’m a natural scientist and communications consultant, passionate about plant-based food. I’m always looking for new ideas for living more sustainably. II find inspiration locally as well as from other cultures.