Prunus mume (syn Armeniaca mume)
Also known as Chinese Plum and Japanese Apricot, this deciduous tree originated in southern China and spread to other parts of Eastern Asia. Although generally referred to as a plum in English, it is more closely related to the apricot. Beautiful pink fragrant blossoms appear in mid-late winter (and are therefore susceptible to frosts) and are an important cultural symbol. In Korea the flowers are also used to make pancakes, and they can be made into a tea. The blossoms are followed by the fruits in early summer. Although they can be eaten raw, they are sour and hard, and usually processed before consumption. In China the fruits are made into a sauce, in Korea a syrup, and both countries, along with Japan, they are pickled in salt and sometimes vinegar, and eaten as a condiment (in Japan known as umeboshi). Each country also has its own liquor speciality made from the fruit, including wine, plums macerated in sticky rice wine, and a mix of plum wine and oolong tea liquor. The possibilities for cocktail hour sound fascinating and endless!
The fruits are known in Asia for their health-giving properties and have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. Some studies have shown plant extracts can control dental disease, inhibit gastric ulcers, and enhance oxidative capacity of muscle.
The seeds are also edible raw or cooked, however, most, if not all members of the Prunus genus produce hydrogen cyanide, a poison which is readily detected by its bitter taste. It is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm but any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.
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.
This is a fairly quick growing but long-lived tree, with some specimens along the Yangtze River valley reputed to be 1000 years old! Mature height is 4-10m, spread up to 6m. Suitable for most soil types, but as its native habitat is riparian it enjoys steady year-round moisture, and good drainage. Tolerated full sun to dappled shade. Flower buds form on one year old wood, so prune after fruit harvest. Self fertile but will produce more fruit with a ‘friend’.
PB8 Certified organic plant. Approx height 1.3m.