Japanese flowering apricot
Few plants have been so closely associated with J. C. Raulston as Prunus mume, the Japanese flowering apricot, or ume as it is known in Japan. J. C. actually left money in his will for the purchase and planting of this tree around Raleigh. As he wrote in one of his many distributions of flowering apricot, "I have often lectured and written about this most favorite plant of mine, the flowering apricot, which blooms in January with white, pink, and red highly fragrant flowers. The Japanese consider the flowering apricot their finest flowering tree and have hundreds of cultivars."
His many students, inspired by his love of the plant have incorporated the tree in landscapes around central North Carolina and I have never found a higher concentration anywhere outside of Asia than in the Raleigh area. Ume typically starts flowering in zone 7 gardens by mid-January, the earliest selections in December, and will continue often into March. The flowers have an intoxicatingly spicy-sweet clove scent which is very strong but doesn't have the cloying sweetness of some winter flowering plants.
The main knock against the flowering apricot is a tendency to fade into the background once they have finished flowering and while the hardcore enthusiasts will praise the glossy jade stems, I dare say green twigs do not rate high on the average homeowner's wish-list. The foliage is relatively nondescript and in some forms looks a bit tired by midsummer. The fruit is a thin-fleshed, sour apricot. It is very nearly inedible in most forms when eaten fresh but is prized in China and Japan for drying or pickling. In Asia, the pickled or dried fruits are eaten as a vegetable not a sweet fruit. With enough sugar, a passable jam or preserve can be made as well.
The JCRA is currently growing about 20 selections of P. mume with colors ranging from pure white to deep rose-red and single to fully double-flowered. I have yet to find a Japanese apricot with no fragrance, and a single tree can scent an entire suburban landscape and probably the entire block. Many forms have been selected to add interest beyond flowers, and the weeping, contorted, and upright growth habits of some cultivars brings welcome structure to the garden. In Asia, many of the hundreds of selections are for fruit production, and these forms are finding increased interest among the many folks who are rediscovering home-pickling and preserving. Gardeners who want the flowers but not the often messy fruits should seek out double-flowered cultivars which form few if any apricots.
Prunus mume is hardy to zone 6 but starts to suffer when grown much warmer than zone 8 or a cool 9. Ideally, it is planted in full sun with a moist, well-drained, acid soil. Shaded plants will not flower well and decline over time. The incredible flowers that appear just when the winter feels like it may never end are reason enough to grow a specimen even if the fragrance was negligible. The intoxicating aroma make a Japanese flowering apricot a must-have for the well-appointed garden.