Geography and distribution
Prunus mume is native to China (western Sichuan and western Yunnan), Japan, Korea, north Laos and north Vietnam. The species is cultivated throughout most of China, particularly in areas south of the Chang Jiang.
Mume normally grows as a small tree of up to 10 m, but sometimes also as a shrub. In winter and spring, when the trees are still leafless, the trees bear their strongly fragrant, white to pink flowers, which can reach 2-2.5 cm in diameter. The flowers are followed by fruits of 2-3 cm in diameter in May and June (or July and August in northern China).
Prunus mume is widely cultivated, both for its flowers and for its edible fruits (for which purpose it is sold as 'umboshi plum' in oriental shops). The smoked, salted or otherwise preserved fruits are also used for medicinal purposes, for example in the treatment of bronchitis, chronic coughs and indigestion. The flowers are used to flavour teas.
Like plums, almonds or peaches, Prunus mume can produce compounds capable of generating hydrogen cyanide (the poison that gives almonds, Prunus dulcis, their characteristic flavour). However, hydrogen cyanide is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm, but any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Description of seeds: Single seed enclosed in a stone, similar to the stone of an apricot.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: None.
Seed storage behaviour: Possibly orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive being dried without significantly reducing their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB).
Flowers of Prunus mume (Photo: Jie Cai, Kunming Institute of Botany)
This small tree can be propagated from seed or cuttings. When growing from seed, cold stratification (placing seeds in a cold environment to break seed dormancy) is required, as well as protection from mice. The germination rate is low.
Cultivars should be propagated from softwood cuttings taken in early summer and kept misted. Prunus mume can also be grafted by T or chip budding on to P. cerasifera.
Mume is long-lived amongst its relatives, but is susceptible to several pests and diseases including verticillium wilt (a soil-borne fungal disease), aphids, borers, scale insects, spider mites and honey fungus. Good soil fertilisation is recommended to keep it in good health, and hence increase its ability to survive pest attack.
The soil should be well-drained and fertile and it is recommended that trees be planted in an open sunny position to produce a uniform crown. However, mume can do well trained against a sunny wall. It has a tendency to form multiple trunks but pruning and training can reduce them to a single one. Regular pruning is recommended to maximise flowering and fruiting.
Mume at Kew
Prunus mume can be seen growing at Wakehurst (half way down Farm Walk, 7 metres from the path).
Specimens of mume can be seen in the Economic Botany Collection, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. These specimens include samples of fruits and wood, and are made available to researchers from around the world by appointment.