Originally introduced from China, the Japanese plum (~, ume; sometimes referred to as Japanese apricot) has played an important role in Japanese culture for many centuries. Its popularity was eventually surpassed by that of the cherry tree.
The plum is associated with the start of spring, because plum blossoms are some of the first blossoms to open during the year. In most areas of Japan, including Tokyo, they typically flower in February and March. The event is celebrated with plum festivals (ume matsuri) in public parks, shrines and temples across the country.
Like cherry trees, plum trees come in many varieties, many of which were cultivated by humans over the centuries. Most plum blossoms have five petals and range in color from white to dark pink. Some varieties with more than five petals (yae-ume) and weeping branches (shidare-ume) have also been cultivated. Unlike cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have a strong, sweet fragrance.
The actual ume fruit is more sour than the Western plum or apricot and is usually processed in various ways before eaten. The most popular processed form is the umeboshi, a sour, pickled plum, which is usually enjoyed with cooked rice. Umeboshi is one of the most typical Japanese flavors. Umeshu, a sweet alcoholic beverage made of plums, is also popular.