The flower of the plum tree, or ume, is perhaps the second most popular flower in Japan — after the cherry blossom, of course.
But the ume is my personal favorite.
Maybe it’s because the blossoming of the plum tree signals is the first sign of spring. I’ve seen plum trees budding in Tokyo’s Ueno Park during the month of February, weeks before the cherry trees blossom.
Or maybe it’s because they’re a hearty flower, opening when there’s still a hint of snow in the air. Ume are not as fragile as cherry blossoms, either; the blossoms last until the birds start chirping that it really is spring.
Or maybe plum blossoms are my favorite because they are yet another symbol of longevity — something I appreciate now that I’m in my seventh decade — or because they are the flower beloved by Japanese scholars and poets.
Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first Americans to reside in Japan during the 19th. century, wrote about an interesting distinction that he observed. He said that the Japanese compared a “woman’s beauty– physical beauty–to the cherry flower, never to the plum flower. But womanly virtue and sweetness, on the other hand, are compared to the ume-no-hana, never to the cherry blossom.”(1)
Guess I’m okay with that, too.
(1) Hearn, Lafcadio and Donald Richie (Editor). Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan: An Anthology of His Writings on the Country and Its People. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1997, p. 76.