Winter in the Northwest: drippy, dreary and dim – and those are the positive aspects. In the negative column: It lasts way too long.

Prunus Mume In Bloom

Prunus mume brings a landscape to life with its astonishing display of rosy blossoms.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Tea Garden Prunus Mume

Winter-blooming Japanese flowering apricots are often incorporated into traditional tea gardens.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

With all the gray, the unexpected sight of flowers blooming outdoors during this season of relentless rain is enough to make a gardener go weak in the knees. If the feeling sounds familiar, then Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) is the best small garden tree you’ve never heard of – unless you’re from Japan, China or Korea. (They’re a little ahead of us on the appreciation of this tree – hundreds to thousands of years ahead.)

What’s so breathtakingly fabulous about the Japanese flowering apricot? It bravely sends out its white, pink or red blossoms on bare limbs in the middle of winter – just when the beauty-starved soul needs such a vision the most.

In China (where Prunus mume is called the mei), the tree is one of the celebrated Three Friends of Winter often seen in traditional tea gardens (the other Friends are pine and bamboo). Portland’s Classical Chinese Garden has three varieties of the tree, which symbolizes moral purity in difficult circumstances.

In Japan (where the tree’s called ume or plum), the arrival of the delicate blossoms inspires multigenerational pilgrimages to view the event, sometimes complete with a hibachi for warmth. The trees’ floral display creates an awe-inspiring contrast with the snow. And the sweet scent of the flowers adds another vivid and sensual dimension to the unexpected wintry experience, as described in a poem in the 100-year-old book, The Flowers and Gardens of Japan:

“How shall I find my ume tree?
The moon and the snow are as white as she.
By the fragrance blown on the evening air
Shalt thou find her there.”

In the US, Japanese flowering apricot has been largely unknown – outside of a collection in the arboretum at North Carolina State University in Raleigh (the product of the crusader-like efforts of the late Dr. J.C. Raulston beginning in the 1970s). Other examples grow in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York, and at Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.

In the Northwest, Japanese flowering apricot blooms between December and February, like an out-of-season illusion. It puts on its peak performance when the typical plum and cherry trees we all know are still barren wood, asleep on the job.

You can expect this round-crowned tree to grow rapidly – often several feet a year. Depending on the cultivar, your Japanese flowering apricot should eventually reach about 15-25 feet tall and wide. Oval-shaped green or reddish leaves grace the limbs in spring after the flowers fall.

Sean Hogan, owner of Cistus Nursery near Portland, OR, says Prunus mume is well-suited to the Willamette Valley. He planted several around his northeast Portland neighborhood and has watched them flourish, with the white-flowering variety ‘White Christmas’ blooming heartily for weeks beginning as early as late November. He also recommends the widely available ‘Peggy Clarke’, which usually blooms in late January or February, producing profuse, double, cup-shaped, rose-pink flowers.

Of course to get these beautiful displays, you need to plant your Japanese flowering apricot in the right spot, which means in a sunny area with good drainage in USDA hardiness zones 6-8. One easy way to ensure healthy drainage is to plant the sapling on a slight slope or mound, according to Ray Prag, owner of Forestfarm Nursery in Williams, OR. He also suggests planting these beauties in an open setting for good air circulation, which discourages diseases that arise in close, damp environments.

It usually takes a young Prunus mume two or three years to mature enough to put on a flower show. But if you plant one this season, it won’t be long before the cheery blossoms chase away your drippy, dreary, dim winter blues!