In this edition of Dan’s Interesting Plant I will give props to the Gardens’ Grounds Supervisor, Chris Pierce. Though Chris does not particularly enjoy the cold temperatures of the late winter months, he does enjoy something they bring: the sweet, sweet smell of this interesting plant. This plant is actually a small flowering tree. This distinct tree species is related to both the plum and apricot trees. Although generally referred to as a plum in English, it is more closely related to the apricot. The fruit of the tree is used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cooking, as a flavoring for alcohol, and is pickled in sauces. It is also used in traditional medicine. The tree's flowering in late winter and early spring is highly regarded as a seasonal symbol of warmer weather to come, which could be another factor explaining why Chris enjoys this plant so much.
This tree remains surprisingly little known in the United States, despite the fact that it has long been a favorite in Japan, where there are an estimated 300 named cultivars. If it were not for the tireless efforts of Dr. J. C. Raulston of the North Carolina State University Arboretum, who has made this plant something of a personal crusade, this tree would be even less known here than it is today. Almost every reference to it in our popular gardening literature identifies Dr. Raulston himself or his students. Even Michael A. Dirr in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants credits Dr. Raulston with bringing this plant to his attention; it was added to the Manual, considered by many to be the gardener's bible, only in the 1990 revised edition.
This interesting plant is a deciduous tree that starts to flower in mid-winter, typically around January until late February. It can grow to 13–33 feet tall. The flowers are 2–2.5 centimeters in diameter and have a strong fragrant scent. They have colors in varying shades of white, pink, and red. The leaves appear shortly after the petals fall, are oval-shaped with a pointed tip, and are 4–8 cm long and 2.5–5 cm wide. The fruit ripens in early summer, around June and July. The drupe is 2–3 centimeters in diameter with a groove running from the stalk to the tip. The skin turns yellow, sometimes with a red blush, as it ripens, and the flesh becomes yellow. The tree is cultivated for its fruit and flowers. Have you figured out what this favorite winter plant of Chris’s is? It’s Japanese Flowering Apricot Prunus mume “Kobai.”