Prunus mume: A bridge between winter and spring.
Many garden writers both past and present have stated that spring is a season you should not have to put much effort into in order to make it look good. Recently I heard the renowned plantsman Tony Avent of Plant Delights say “even an idiot couldn’t screw up spring.” While this may be a slight exaggeration, I understand his reasoning. Spring is a time of renewal and there is no lack of abundance when flowering plants are involved. It’s a time of year when nature is pouring it on after the long cold dormancy of winter, and gardeners are often over-eager to add to the season.
The true merit of gardeners can partly be gauged by how successful they are in extending the seasons. This not only refers to the addition of flowering plants that take you well into the frosty days of autumn, but to the addition of color, form and texture to the winter garden. Creating interest into late winter and earliest spring can be especially rewarding. We are starved for color and hope there is an end in site. My previous posting on snowdrops demonstrated some of the possibilities of boosting color at this time of year through herbaceous plants. The task of achieving the same goal with trees and shrubs is a bit more of a challenge.
Prunus mume, also known as Japanese apricot or Chinese plum, is a woody plant that’s up to the task. The Chinese see its blossoms as both a symbol of winter and a harbinger of spring. In the same vein, I consider Prunus mume to be a bridge between seasons in the Ohio River valley. Depending on the cultivar and the weather, it can bloom as early as January. One problem with this early bloom date is that flowers and swollen buds often freeze when temperatures return to normal. Fortunately the buds of Prunus mume show staggered dormancy. Buds open at different times, leaving some to bloom when it warms again. Cold winters with gradual warming will produce abundant flowering starting in early to mid March.
Hardy to zones 6-9, Prunus mume is adaptable to most soils given good drainage. Canker and Brown rot seem to be the diseases most associated with this plant in our area. Fruit growers are not fond of having this plant near their orchards since it is thought to be a host for pest and disease that could affect their stone fruits.
The plant itself has several different growth forms. A small upright tree is the most common form. There are also weeping varieties, and I have seen references to a corkscrew form. The stems of the younger wood of most cultivars have a lovely green cast that adds a bit of interest to the winter landscape.
The flowers of the various cultivars of Prunus mume do offer a fair amount of diversity. Varying shades of white, pink and red are common. Blossoms can be single, double or cup shaped and some have contrasting anthers. The sweet and spicy fragrance of the flowers is second to none in the genus Prunus. When in bloom a tree will literally be abuzz with hundreds of pollinators.
The fruit of Prunus mume will never be appreciated as fully here as it is in China and Japan, where it is used for both medicine and food. Plum wine, umeboshi and vinegar are just a few of the products made with the fruit. Fruiting does not reliably occur in the Cincinnati area. I will eat a few when we do have a crop but it’s not a fruit I have acquired a taste for.
According to Michael Dirr’s Manual of woody plants, Prunus mume was introduced into this country in 1844. The first wave of introductions into commerce started in the late 1920’s. The W. B. Clarke nursery was responsible for most of the early introductions at that time.
Walter Clarke was one of the most influential nurserymen of that time. Prunus mume was only a very small part of his nursery operation. Many of the varieties he introduced are still popular. The plant most people may be familiar with is the Yoshino Cherry cultivar Akebono( Daybreak). This is one of the cherries so popular during the spring bloom in Washington DC.
I have found references to at least 16 cultivars Mr. Clarke introduced. Three named after his daughters. Peggy Clarke, Rosemary Clarke and Dawn. Several of his introductions were Japanese cultivars that he renamed.
The late Dr. J.C. Raulston of the North Carolina State University Arboretum (currently called the J.C. Raulston Arboretum) gets most of the credit for the renewed interest in the species. He was a tireless promoter of the tree. I was told by one source that his will included provisions to put Prunus mume on every street in Raleigh N.C. This demonstrates his commitment to the species, and is incredibly high praise for the tree coming from one of the foremost plantsman of his time. The arboretum now has over 25 cultivars.
It was Raulston who inspired many other people to become involved with the cultivation of Prunus mume. One of the most important among them is Tom Krenistsky. Mr. Krenistsky planted out over 100 seedlings from seed collected at the Coker Arboretum and from J.C. Raultston’s trees. Quite a bit of variation appeared in the seedlings. He selected for disease resistance and attractiveness, both in and out of flower. He has introduced many outstanding cultivars — Big Joe, Josephine, Luke and Nicholas to name a few.
Camellia Forest, a nursery in Chapel Hill NC has one of the larger selections of Prunus mume for sale in the eastern US. The have introduced several cultivars. Bridal Veil and Fragrant Snow being two of the more popular.
Ever gardener needs a sign that spring is nearing. What better way to chase off the winter blues, than the beautiful blossoms and lovely fragrance of Prunus mume.
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