The Prunus mume tree, commonly called a Chinese plum or Japanese apricot, is indeed related to both. And though the species relation is in fact closer to the latter, in common parlance we refer to it as the former. Plum trees, their blossoms and their fruit are prized in the culture and mythology of Japan.
In a small orchard behind Kuniko’s house these dozen plum trees bloom each February. Their white, single petal flowers glow in the cold misty air, a delicate promise of a forthcoming spring. Gradually the petals fall, leaves unfurl and rock hard, fuzzy green orbs grow towards ripeness in June.
Born in the same year that Japan invaded China, initiating World War II in the Pacific, Kuniko’s understanding of the world was formed during wartime and reconstruction when resources were scarce. The notion of mottainai courses through her veins. So when presented with 12 plum trees in the backyard, she could not bear to watch the fruit fall.
Despite giving away a bulk of each year’s harvest, her pantry shelves now buckle under the weight of over 150 liters (40 gallons) of umeboshi (dried, pickled plums) ranging in date from 2006 to the present.
To make the finest umeboshi requires a few weeks of occasional attention followed by a long, long wait. For Kuniko, now 77, these prospects no longer hold much allure. Though in her heart of hearts she will be forever plagued by that sense of montainai, many factors point to ceasing the annual tradition this year. “There are more than enough in the pantry to last me the rest of my life,” she said.
“But if we don’t make umeboshi, what’s the point of a dozen trees in the yard?” we countered.
“Well, the flowers are lovely,” she reminded us.