The Japanese plum (Ume) (ウメ)

Japanese plum (technical name: Prunus Mume) refers to a deciduous tall tree of Rosaceae Prunusor or its fruits.


Other Japanese names include Kobunboku, Harutsugegusa, Konohana, Hatsunagusa, Kazamigusa, Kazemachigusa and Nioigusa.

Since the Edo period, Hanami (flower viewing) has come to be associated with cherry blossoms. Before the Nara period, however, when people referred to 'flowers', they almost always meant Japanese plum. Around the mid Heian period, Japanese plums came to be endangered by the presence of cherry blossoms.

It is written in 'Diary of the Ladies-in-Waiting' (Oyudono no ue no Nikki) that on April 17, 1545 (in the lunar calendar), the Emperor of that time made an offering of Japanese plums to Kamo-jinja Shine in Kyoto. Based on this, the 'Kishu Japanese Plum's Association' set June 6 as the Japanese plum day.

Characteristics and variety
It is closely related to the apricot and crossbreeds easily. Fruits of the Yabai line are small in size but the edible species of the Bungo line (also called the Higo line) have become larger through crossbreeding with the apricot. However, the fruits are not sweet even if they are completely ripe.

As the Japanese plum only has one flower per bud, it appears less flamboyant than the peach when it blooms. Every February to April, before growing leaves the Japanese plum tree produces 1-3 centimeter flowers with five petals. The flower is white or a pinky red. It has alternate egg-shaped leaves with serrated edges. The plum is a 2-3 centimeter spherical fruit with a stone and an indent on one side. It ripens into a yellow shade around June.
It is written in Boshu Makko in Shichijuniko (72 divisions of the solar year) that 'the fruit of the Japanese plum trees ripen yellow.'
There are more than 300 different kinds of Japanese plum trees, which are classified in to three lines: the Yabai, the Kobai and the Bungo. The edible fruit mainly comes from the Bungo line plum trees.

Medical effect and toxicity

Whilst the flowers are valued for their aesthetic value, the plums are eaten as Umeboshi (pickled plums), plum liquor, plum vinegar, plum jam, etc. The plums are also used for Japanese sweets, such as Kanrobai (plums stewed in syrup) and Noshiume (a thin solid jelly consisting of sweet plum jam) and for Japanese dishes, like braised fish with dried plum.

As a Chinese herbal drug, Japanese plums blackened by smoking are called Ubai and are believed to have effects of calming gastric and intestinal disorders, vermifuge, haemostatis and cardiotonic. In China, sweet dried plums called Wamui are sold as Chinese confectionery.

Leaves, immature green plums and seeds in the nucleus of Rosaceae contain cyanogenetic glycoside, thus cyanide can be produced by immature seeds and enzymes of bacterium flora in the human intestine. It is said that if gastric acid causes hydrogen cyanide toxicity, people can develop spasticity, difficulty in breathing, and in the worst case die from paralysis. As cyanide cannot be formed by acid and digestive enzymes in the stomach, the risk of poisoning by accidental intake is limited to the cases where large quantities of seeds are crunched. While apricot seeds can cause severe incidents, it is safe for infants to nibble Japanese green plums. Also, in the case of green plums and dried plum seeds contained in plum liquor, the toxicity is reduced because alcohol and heat have inactivated enzymes.

As it contains a lot of organic acids, in particular citric acid, it is also sold as a health food.

Planting and harvesting in Japan

According to statistics released by Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in November 2008, its cropping acreage was 17,400 hectares, its total harvest 122,000 tons, and the total shipment 103,600 tons. The total harvests by the region from the north were 1,930 tons in Aomori, 6,800 tons in Gunma, 1,270 tons in Fukui, 2,100 tons in Yamanashi, 1,990 tons in Nagano, 2,020 tons in Nara, 67,600 tons in Wakayama and 822 tons in Tokushima.

The origin of the word

There are various stories about the origin of 'ume.'

As the plums have significant medical benefits, it may be named Ume after the combination of 'u (never-seen-before) and me (truly-important).'

It is also believed to be derived from '梅' in Chinese (mai/mei). Japanese pronounciation at that time of introduction inserted a light nasal sound before n and m, (this vestige still remains in the Tohoku dialect today), and they pronounced mei as nme. This was written as 'ンメ' (nme) and changed to mume and to ume over time. At the same time, ume is still pronounced as mme in some dialects. However, there is a theory that as the labial sound u was assimilated into the subsequent labial sound m, which changed to mme.

There are several other theories but none of them has become an established theory so far.


Ume-mon is a Japanese crest designed based on the Japanese plum flower. One type of crest called Umebachi was inspired by the spiral pattern of petals which resembles drumsticks (bachi in Japanese). It is believed that Umebachi came to be used as a pattern in the Nara period and as SUGAWARA no Michizane loved Japanese plum flowers, it was used as the crest of Tenman-gu Shrine.

Crest designs include 'ume,' 'umebachi,' 'neziume' and 'miumebachi.'
The designs are divided broadly into two types: realistic design, such as 'nioiume' and 'mukoue,' and simplified ones, such as 'umebachi.'

The 'ume' crest is used in Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shrine and the 'hoshi umebachi' crest is used in Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine. Among samurai families, the descendants of the Sugawara clan and families of the Mino Saito clan used it following the SUGAWARA Tenjin shrine faith. The main crests include 'Kaga umebachi' of the Kaga Maeda clan and 'Sagara umebachi' crest of the Sagara clan, etc.

Phrases including the Japanese plum

Anyone who prunes cherry trees is a fool, as is anyone who doesn't trim apricot trees.'
This expresses precautions about cultivation by comparing the Japanese plum and cherry blossom, which are both representative flowers of early Spring. If cherry trees are cut unnecessarily, the cut surface can start to decay, so pruning of them requires care. On the other hand, Japanese plum trees are resistant to pruning and if they are not trimmed sufficiently, not only can their shape be ruined, ripening of fruit can be affected. As the buds move to the tips of the branches year on year, fruit-yielding branches generally die after a number of years. In order to harvest the fruits, regular renewal of branches is needed.

When the wind is in the east, I want it to blow the scent of Japanese plum flowers to me; even if I disappear from here, you, Japanese plum flowers, do not forget spring.' (SUGAWARA no Michizane)
This is a Japanese poem written when Michizane was demoted and transferred to Dazaifu (local government office in the Kyushu region), parting reluctantly from the beloved Japanese plum flowers in his garden. Later there was a legend known as a flying plum tree (tobuume) that the Japanese plum trees in the garden flew to Daszaifu, following him.

Peach and chestnut seeds take three years to bear fruit, plums take eight, Yuzu (Japanese citron) takes eighteen years and Japanese plum trees take sixteen years.'
This is a traditional folk song that shows the time from planting to harvesting for various fruits.
It originates from a single proverb 'Peach and chestnut seeds take three years to bear fruit, plums take eight.'
The moral is that things do not come easily and often it takes a steady effort and patience to become full-fledged.

Tenman-gu Shrines across the country

Japanese plum trees are symbolic.

Hobaien, Mikasa plum-grove park (Mikasa City, Hokkaido)

This is the largest Japanese plum orchard and has about 10 thousand Japanese plum trees.

Hiraoka Park (Kiyota Ward, Sapporo City, Hokkaido)

This park has around 1,200 Japanese plum trees on its 6.5-hectare site. The ratio of red plum blossoms to white plum blossoms is about 6 : 4.

Mito Kairaku-en Garden (Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture)

This is a Japanese garden with around 3,000 Japanese plum trees. It is one of the three most outstanding gardens in Japan and of the three major Japanese plum gardens in the Kanto region.

Mt. Tsukuba (Tsukuba City, Ibaraki Prefecture)

It is one of the one hundred top mountains of Japan with around 3,000 Japanese plum trees.

Yoshino baigo (The home of the Japanese plum) (Ome City, Tokyo)

This has around 25,000 Japanese plum trees.

Fuchu City Kyodo no Mori Museum, Baien (Japanese plum garden)

This has around 1,100 Japanese plum trees of around 60 different varieties on its 17-hectare site.

Akima bairin (The forest of the Japanese plum) (Annaka City, Gunma Prefecture)

This forest has more than 35,000 Japanese plum trees on a site of roughly 50-hectares.

Ogose bairin (Ogose Town, Saitama Prefecture)

This is one of the three largest Japanese plum forests in the Kanto region.

Atami bairin (Atami City, Shizuoka Prefecture)

This is one of the three largest Japanese plum forests in the Kanto region.

Iwamotoyama Park (Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture)

Although this park has only 400 Japanese plum trees, it is famous as a location for shooting Mt. Fuji.

Aodani bairin (Joyo City, Kyoto Prefecture)

This is host to roughly 10,000 Japanese plum trees. It is about 20 hectares in area and dates back to the Kamakura period.

Tsukigase bairin (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)

National Sites of Natural Beauty
This is a Japanese plum forest in Tsukigase-mura Village, former Soekami County. It has around 13,000 Japanese plum trees. It is home to a 600 year-old tree.

Ano bairin (Gojo City, Nara Prefecture)

This is a Japanese plum forest, referenced in poetry written in the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, with around 20,000 Japanese plum trees.

Ayabeyama/Murotsu (Tatsuno City, Hyogo Prefecture)

This is known as 'A Glimpse of 20,000 trees' from the Seto Inland Sea.

Nanbu bairin (Minabe Town, Wakayama Prefecture)

This is a Nanko-ume plum forest famed for its 'Glimpse of 1,000 trees with a fragrance spreading for miles.'

Iwashirodai bairin (Minabe Town, Wayakama Prefecture)

This is a Nanko-ume plum forest with 20,000 trees on its 30-hectare site.

Senri bairin (Minabe Town, Wakayama Prefecture)

This is a Nanko-ume plum forest located on a hill overlooking the Senri no hama Beach of the Kumanokodo Road, containing around 6,000 trees.

Kishu-tanabe bairin (Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture)

It has 300,000 Japanese plum trees and is located at the foot of Mt. Daija.

Agawa ume no sato (The forest of Japanese plum) (Kamiyama Town, Tokushima Prefecture)

This is a Oshuku ume plum forest with 16,000 trees on the 30-hectare site.

Japanese plum-related facilities

Michi-no-eki (Roadside Station Minabe), the Promotion Center of Japanese Plum (Wakayama Prefecture)
Kishu Umeboshi (pickled plum) Promotion Center
a corporation museum of umeboshi (pickled plum)
Wakayama Research Center of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japanese plum research center
National Japanese plum summit

[Original Japanese]