Blooming in Ice: The Cool Symbolism of Plum Blossoms
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.
Xia Gui, circa 15th century
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.
Photo by zt1997
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.
Warbler on Red Plum Branch by Hiroshige
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!