The tree originates from China, and was brought to Japan and Korea later. The tree is cultivated for its fruit and flowers. Although generally referred to as a plum in the English language, it is actually more closely related to the apricot.
The tree flowers in late winter, typically late January or February in East Asia, before the leaves appear. Each flower has five petals and is 1–3 in diameter. The flowers have coloring ranging from white to rose to deep red. The leaves appear shortly after the petals fall. The leaves are oval, with a pointed tip. The fruit ripens in early summer, typically June in East Asia. The ripening of the fruit coincides with the rainy season of China and Japan, '''' , read ''baiu'' or ''tsuyu'' in Japanese. Each fruit is round with a groove running from the stalk to the tip. The skin is green when unripe, and turns yellow, sometimes with a red blush, as it ripens. The flesh becomes yellow.
The plant is known by a number of different names in . One translation is Japanese apricot. Other variants include Japanese plum and Chinese plum . An alternative name used in North America is ume, from the Japanese name. An alternative name used in Australia is mume, from the scientific name, and ultimately based on an older, alternative Japanese pronunciation—possibly the original—of "mme" , which was written "mume" . Another alternative is mei, from the Chinese name, which is usually seen in the context of Chinese art and cuisine, and imports from Chinese-speaking regions.
Sometimes names such as ume'' plum and umeboshi'' plum are also seen. For the tree and flower, names like Japanese flowering apricot, flowering plum, and winter plum may be used, the latter specifically with regard to depiction of the flower in Chinese painting.
In it is called méi or méizi The name is ume while the name is maesil . The Japanese and Korean terms derive from Middle Chinese, in which the pronunciation is thought to have been ''mu?i''.. The name is mai or m? .
In China, there are over 300 recorded cultivars of ''mei'', which can be broadly divided by colour into white, pink, red, purple, and light green types. Some varieties are especially famed for their ornamental value, including the ''Dahong mei'' , ''Taige mei'' , ''Zhaoshui mei'' , ''Lü'e mei'' , ''Longyou mei'' .
As the ''mei'' can usually grow for a long time, ancient ''mei'' trees are found throughout China. in Hubei features a 1600-year-old ''mei'' tree from the which is still flowering.
In Japan, ume cultivars are classified into ''yabai'' types, ''hibai'' types, and ''bungo'' type. The ''bungo'' trees are also grown for fruit and supposed to be hybrids between ume and apricot. The ''hibai'' trees have red and most of them have red flowers. The ''yabai'' trees are also used as grafting stock.
''Ume'' juice is extracted by preserving the fruits in sugar. In China, sour plum juice is made from ''ume'' . It ranges from light pinkish orange to purplish black in color and often has a smoky and slightly salty taste. It is traditionally flavoured with sweet osmanthus flowers, and is enjoyed chilled, usually in summer. The juice produced in Japan and Korea, made from green ''ume'', tastes sweet and tangy, and is considered a refreshing drink, also often enjoyed in the summer. In Korea, ''maesil'' juice, which is marketed as a healthful tonic, is enjoying increasing popularity. It is commercially available in glass jars in sweetened, concentrated syrup form; it is reconstituted by stirring a small amount of syrup into a glass of water. The syrup may also be prepared at home by storing one part fresh ''maesil'' in a container with one part sugar .
''Ume'' liquor, also known as "plum wine", is popular in both Japan and Korea, and is also produced in China. ''Umeshu'' is a Japanese alcoholic drink made by steeping green ''ume'' in ''shōchū'' . It is sweet and smooth. The taste and aroma of ''umeshu'' can appeal to even those people who normally dislike alcohol. A similar liquor in Korea, called ''maesil ju'' , is marketed under various brand names including Mae Hwa Su, Mae Chui Soon, and Seol Joong Mae. Both the Japanese and Korean varieties of ''ume'' liquor are available with whole ''ume'' fruits contained in the bottle.
In China, ''ume'' wine is called ''mei jiu'' .
In Taiwan, a popular post-World War II innovation on Japanese-style ''umeshu'' is the ''wumeijiu'', or '''' liquor , which is made by mixing ''Prunus mume'' liquor , ''Prunus salicina'' liquor , and Oolong tea liquor.
Pickled and preserved ''ume''
''Umeboshi'' , or pickled ''ume'', are a Japanese specialty. Flavoured with salt and purple '''' leaves, they are red in color and quite salty and sour, and therefore eaten sparingly. ''Umeboshi'' are generally eaten with rice as part of a bento, although they may also be used in ''''. ''Makizushi'' made with ''ume'' may be made with either ''umeboshi'' or ''umeboshi'' paste, often in conjunction with green ''shiso'' leaves. A by-product of ''umeboshi'' production is ''umeboshi'' vinegar, a salty, sour condiment. In Chinese cuisine, ''ume'' that are pickled with vinegar and salt are called ''suān méizi'' , and have a similar intensely sour and salty flavor as ''umeboshi''.
''Huamei'' , or Chinese preserved plum, refers to any of a large number of Chinese foods involving plums pickled in sugar, salt, and herbs such as . There are two general varieties: a dried variety, and a wet variety.
In , a very similar variety of pickled ume is called ''xí mu?i'' or ''? mai''.
A thick, sweet Chinese sauce called ''mei jiang'' or ''meizi jiang'' , usually translated as "plum sauce," is also made from ''ume'', 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 traditional Chinese medicine, the smoked fruits, called ''wumei'' , are used for medicinal purposes. They are generally black in color and are believed to be effective against parasites, as well as in stopping ulcers and promoting a strong digestive system and heart.
''Ume'' flowers have been well loved and celebrated in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Mainland China and Taiwan
In China, they are most commonly used as decoration during the Chinese New Year. The blossoms are common subjects in Chinese art and are among the most beloved of Chinese flowers. Unlike the Japanese, however, the Chinese see the blossoms as more of a symbol for winter rather than a harbinger of spring. It is precisely for this reason that the blossoms are so beloved, because they bloom most vibrantly amidst the winter snow, after other plants have shed their leaves, and before any other flowers appear. Thus, they are seen as an example of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, and have also been used as a metaphor to symbolize revolutionary struggle. Because they blossom in winter, the plum blossom, the pine, and the bamboo together have been called the "Three Friends of the Cold" .
Apart from that, the blossom is one of the Four Gentlemen in Chinese art , symbolizing nobility. These are also the four flowers that appear on mahjong tile sets, where ''mei'' is usually simply translated as "plum" in English.
The blossom has long been a floral symbol of the ancient Chinese city of Nanjing. In 1964, the Executive Yuan of the Republic of China adopted the five-petaled plum blossom as the national flower of the Republic of China.. It also serves as the logo of China Airlines, the national carrier of the Republic of China. The flower features prominently on the and other national symbols. In mainland China, the flower also features on and other important symbols.
''Ume'' 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 they are depicted together as one of the twelve on ''hanafuda'' . During the Nara period , the blossom of the ''ume'' tree was preferred over the ''sakura'' blossom, which became popular after the Heian period .
Japanese tradition holds that the ''Ume'' functions as a protective charm against evil. For this reason, the ''Ume'' is traditionally planted in the north-east 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. In Confucianism, ''mai'' is named in the group of Four Gentlemen : ''lan'' , ''cúc'' , ''trúc'' , and ''mai''. The largest hospital in Hanoi is named , another hospital in Hanoi is named , situated in Hong Mai street. Hoang Mai is the name of a district in Hanoi. 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 ''Prunus mume'' were grown.
Due to its characteristics, beautiful flowers and a tall, slender tree, ''mai'' is used to describe the beauty of women in expressions such as "Mình h?c x??ng mai" - crane's body, plum's bones, and "G?y nh? mai" - as slender as a plum tree.
H? Qu? Ly wooed and won Princess Nh?t Chi Mai of the Tr?n king after seeing a parallel couplet:
:''Thanh Th? ?i?n ti?n thiên th? qu?''
:''Qu?ng Hàn cung l? Nh?t Chi Mai.''
meaning: Thanh Th? palace, thousands of cinnamon trees here
Qu?ng Hàn palace, Nh?t Chi Mai there".
Nh?t Chi Mai is the name of the princess, but also means a branch of ''mai'', implying a beautiful girl.
The Zen monk Thi?n s? M?n Giác monk composed a poem "Cáo t?t th? chúng" .
:''Xu?n kh? bách hoa l?c'' Spring goes, hundreds of flower fall
:''Xu?n ?áo bách hoa khai'' Spring comes, hundreds of flowers blossom.
:''S? tr?c nh?n ti?n qúa'' In front of the eyes, everything goes on ever
:''L?o tùng ??u th??ng lai'' On the heads, showing the year of age soon comes.
:''M?c v? xu?n tàn hoa l?c t?n'' Who can say when spring ends, all flowers fall down?
:''?ình ti?n t?c d?'' nh?t chi mai Last night, in front-yard, a branch of plum flower blossomed.
In this poem, ''nh?t chi mai'' serves as a metaphor for ''hope'' .
The ''mai'' used to celebrate the new year in the south, similar to the peach in the north, is in fact a different plant from ''Prunus mume'' .