Botanical name: Prunus mume
Common name: Flowering plum, (Japanese) flowering apricot, ume
Family name: Rosaceae (Rose family)
Native range: Southern China
Location in Duke Gardens: Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, Historic Gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 6-9
By Katherine Hale
Marketing & Communications Assistant
For thousands of years, the iconic flowering plum (Prunus mume) has brightened the chilly gray days of late winter with its dazzling display of colorful blossoms. Unlike the more sensitive flowering cherries, apples and pear blossoms, all of which are easily damaged by cool temperatures and hard frosts, the flowering plum is significantly hardier. As a result of both its unusual tolerance to cold and its tremendous beauty, the “plum blossom” is one of the “three friends of winter” in classical Chinese tradition along with pine and bamboo, and it's an instant seasonal allusion in Asian art and poetry.
Originally native to the area around the Yangtze River in southern China, P. mume was later introduced and widely planted across the country, as well as in neighboring Japan, Korea and Vietnam, where many new cultivars were developed. It is also known as “flowering apricot” as it is more closely related to apricots (P. armeniaca) than any of the other Prunus species commonly referred to as plums. However, no matter what you call them, the fruits of P. mume are too small and sour to be eaten out of hand, and are usually pickled whole—known in Japanese as umeboshi—or brewed into liquor or condiments instead. As a result, many varieties, including those here at Duke Gardens, are grown exclusively for their flowers, though they can and do produce fruit during mild winters.
Although an essential part of many Asian cultural traditions, flowering plum is still relatively obscure in North America, despite efforts by the late Dr. J.C. Raulston of North Carolina State University to introduce the tree to plant nurseries. As with other members of this genus, it is susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, as well as the unsightly black knot fungus (Apiosporina morbosa), which can be challenging to manage. However, as a stroll through the Gardens in late January and early February will prove, the results are worth it.
Wild-type flowering plums have five pink petals, but selected cultivars come in a wide range of colors and shapes. Varieties here at Duke Gardens include the double rose ‘Peggy Clarke’, the bright red semi-double ‘Kobai’, and the pink semi-double ‘Nicholas’, all of which are easy to find in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum and the Historic Gardens when the trees are in bloom.
Photos from top: Close-up of pink flowering plum blossoms in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, by Sue Lannon; a honeybee (Apis mellifera) investigates flowering plum blossoms in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, by Cathi Bodine; a young flowering plum tree in bloom in the Ruth Mary Meyer Japanese Garden, by Cathi Bodine.