My dear friend and writing mentor, Margot Rochester, once wrote, “Naming a favorite plant is like choosing a favorite child—senseless and impossible when you love them all.” In theory I agree with my friend, but when the Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) begins to bloom, reason is overruled by heart.
Though named for Japan, the country where it was discovered by Europeans, the small tree is native to China. Known there as mei, or plum, it joins the gnarled pine and the supple bamboo as one of the three friends of winter.
Some cultivars, such as the ‘Peggy Clark’ growing in my garden, have semi-double or double blooms. Flowers of the true species, however, have only five petals. In China, they represent the five blessings—long life, wealth, love of virtue, health, and a natural death.
Planted just last spring, ‘Peggy Clark’ started to bloom in the final days of December, gracing the front garden with its cupped, rosy flowers and spicy-sweet fragrance. Yesterday, when temperatures reached into the 50’s the small tree was alive with honey bees as they sipped nectar and filled their pockets with pollen.
Unlike some other early-bloomers, whose flowers can be lost in a freeze, the apricot tree will open new buds when the weather turns mild again. Typically, in the Upstate, it will bloom time and again as the temperatures fluctuate. In colder years, the flowers may not open until February.
‘Peggy Clark’ was introduced by nurseryman W.B. Clark (1876-1953) of San Jose, California. Clark, who had three daughters, named a tree for each. ‘Bonita’ is a deep red selection with double flowers on a somewhat dwarf from and ‘Rosemary’ has semi-double blooms with rosy calyxes. Though many newer cultivars are available, these three remain popular in the trade.
Always a feature of Asian gardens such as Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, the flowering apricot is still relatively unknown in the United States. The late Dr. J.C. Raulston, who worked to make the tree more accessible to gardeners (particularly in our region), is credited with a lovely collection at the arboretum named in his honor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
If Prunus mume is not available to you locally, visit Camellia Forest Nursery.