The Chinese plum is a tree grown both for its ornamental value and as a fruit tree. The tree is mid-size and blooms early in the season. The fruit, used both as food and as medicine, is related to apples, peaches and other members of the Rosaceae family. The chinese plum is also known by its species name Prunus mume and by other common names, including Japanese apricot and mei flower.
As an ornamental, the Chinese plum is selected for its moderate size, showy flowers and early bloom time. The tree grows 10 to 20 feet (about 3 to 6 m) tall. It is a deciduous tree, losing its leaves in the fall. In late winter and early spring, before the first leaves emerge, flower buds form on the branches. The fragrant flowers bloom in shades of pink, white and red, depending on the cultivar.
The flowers are replaced with abundant green foliage in spring and summer. These plum trees grow at a rapid rate and form a neat, rounded shape. This ornamental commonly is used as a specimen shrub and is ideal for small gardens. It is also well suited for planting along sidewalks and roadways. Chinese plum trees are hardy in areas where winter temperatures rarely drop below -10 to 0°F (about -23 to -17°C).
Chinese plum trees grow best in full sun or part shade. Full sun is six or more hours a day and part shade is considered four to six hours a day. Like other fruit trees in the Rosaceae family, the early flowers can be damaged by late frosts. It is best to plant the trees on level ground or on a slight rise. Frost collects in low areas and can damage the flowers, which prevents the tree from bearing fruit in that year.
The trees are propagated from seed or by rooted cuttings. Seeds require a three-month stratification period in order to germinate. When growing specific cultivars, seed propagation is not desirable, as these plum trees do not grow true to seed; trees grown from soft wood cuttings will be identical clones of the parent plants. Some popular cultivars include the rose-colored Bonita, crimson-colored Benishidare, white-blooming Alba, and the delicate pink Dawn.
Chinese plum fruits are 1 to 3 inches (about 2.54 to 7.62 cm) in diameter with a soft yellow skin. In Japan, the fruit traditionally is pickled and salted. Prepared in this manner it is called umeboshi plum and is commonly found in Oriental markets and natural food stores. Umeboshi plums are considered a natural antibiotic, are high in antioxidants and are believed to help with digestion.