During March and April my Instagram feed is full of beautiful blossoms and I’m constantly trying to pick whether it’s an early cherry blossom (Sakura) or a late plum or apricot bloom (Ume). I’m the same when we’re in Japan in the late winter and early spring, each tree must be closely examined to work out what I’m looking at and of course a ridiculous number of photos must be taken.
I’m no botanist but I do love a good blossom and over the years of visiting Japan in both winter and springtime I’ve picked up a few tips for identifying them and telling whether that bloom is sakura or ume. It’s amazing what I’ve learned from fellow blossom lovers despite the language barrier with a bit of pointing and some impromptu mime. I’ve noticed that the usual Japanese reserve of speaking with strangers doesn’t seem to apply on a hiking trail or in a garden.
The month and city in Japan is the first thing to consider. If you’re in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, and it’s February then it’s almost certainly ume, the blossom of plum or apricot trees. If it’s April then it’s very likely sakura, the cherry blossom you are spotting. In March, well, it could be either late ume or early sakura so you need to identify it in another way.
The next consideration is where you are. If you’re in a renowned garden or a part of town known for one of the other that will definitely help. For example the Philosophers path in Kyoto is planted heavily in sakura trees along the canal. The plum grove at Osaka castle on the other hand is famous for its 1200+ ume trees. You may even have spotted an individually famous tree such as the Shakujo-no-ume on Mt Misen, Miyajima Island or the famous weeping sakura tree in Maruyama Park in Kyoto.
This is the famous Shakujo-no-ume of Mt Misen, as you can see it’s a very old tree but its double ume blossoms are still spectacular. Legend has it that Kabo-Daishi was leaning on his plum wood staff at that spot and it took root growing into the plum tree that we see today. The tree is known to be sensitive to fortune and doesn’t bloom during inauspicious years. The photo also disproves the sakura in April rule, this ume photo was taken on Miyajima Island on the 10th April while the rest of the island was absolute awash in cherry blossom.
Sakura or Ume Identification
For an accurate identification the flower and tree are both examined. You’ll notice many similarities to start with, the flowers are almost always massed on the tree, they flower for a short defined period once a year, a standard bloom on each has 5 petals and they are mainly seen in hues of pink and white. So what are the differences?
1. The Petals
The petals of the sakura are oval and have a small notch in the top of each one, the petals of the ume can be round or oval.
2. The Fragrance
The ume flowers have a beautiful heady fragrance, sakura have no perfume or a very light one.
3. The Stem
The sakura flowers are usually on a longer stem with multiple flowers coming from the same bud . The ume often appear to grow directly from the wood with little stem but like all good rules there are exceptions to this one too and some ume grow on stalks.
4. The Flower Bud
The flower bud on the ume is round accommodating the single flower, the sakura flower bud is oval housing the bunch of blossoms.
5. The Leaf Bud
Even during the blossom phase there are usually a few leaves buds already bursting on the tree. On a cherry tree these leaf buds will usually be bright green, on plum trees they’re often red or brown.
6. The Tree
The tree itself can be used to tell the difference. The cherry tree has a grey bark and often small horizonal lines can be seen, the plum tree has darker bark and doesn’t have the horizontal striations. The shape of the mature tree differs too, the cherry tree has an umbrella shape where the plum tree has a rounded or oval appearance.
Is Sakura or Ume more popular in Japan?
Both flowers are so beautiful but the season of Sakura is now a peak tourist season in Japan that brings out huge numbers of tourists from within Japan and overseas. Popular hotels near the more famous sakura sights are booked out months in advance, it is fair to say that today sakura is the most famous and popular of the blossoms. This hasn’t always been the case though, back in the Nara period the more striking and highly perfumed ume blossom were the more famous. It wasn’t until the Heian period that popularity began to shift towards the sakura.
I’m a lover of both, I can’t make a choice between ume or sakura. The mass blossoms of the cherry trees are amazing in peak bloom and it’s so romantic to stroll beneath then as the wind whips them up from their branches and deposits a confetti of pink and white petals all around you as we had happen at Korakuen garden in Okayama (below) and the Philosophers Path in Kyoto.
Do you have a favourite blossom between the sakura or ume? The colour and perfume of the plum or the impact of the massed cherry? I might have been able to (mostly) tell them apart during my last couple of visits but I still can’t choose one over the other.