Japanese plum blossoms (know as ume) and cherry blossoms (known as sakura) are two of the most iconic flowers in Japan, where they hold deep cultural significance. Both are enduring and charming in their own unique ways, they are often confused for one another given they both have light pink petals. Here are some key differences between the two.
Ume (Japanese plum) blossoms
One of the most notable differences between ume and sakura blossoms is their appearance. Ume blossoms tend to be smaller and more delicate than sakura blossoms. They typically have five petals, which are usually white or pink with a hint of purple. The petals are also longer and narrower than sakura petals, giving them a more elegant and refined appearance. In contrast, sakura are larger and fluffier, with petals that are rounder and softer. They come in a wider range of colors, from soft pink to vibrant red, and they tend to create a more dramatic and showy display.
Sakura (cherry blossoms)
Ume and sakura also bloom at different times of the year. Ume blossoms typically appear in late winter or early spring, before the sakura blossoms. When everything else is still dormant, the pink and white hues of the ume blossoms add a pop of color to the barren landscape. Sakura blossoms, on the other hand, bloom in late March or early April, at the height of spring. Both trees draw crowds when in bloom and there are often Ume and Sakura Festivals which include traditional Japanese music, dance, and food, all centered around the blooming trees. Many people also enjoy partaking in hanami (lit. "flower viewing"), which involves picnicking under the sakura blossoms. Typically quiet parks come to life during this time of year and the smell of barbecue fills the air around sakura trees.
Ume (Japanese plum) blossoms
In terms of symbolism, ume blossoms are often associated with resilience and perseverance. Because they bloom in the cold of winter, they are a symbol of hope and renewal, emerging from the darkness of winter to signal the arrival of spring. They are a reminder that even in the harshest of conditions, life can still flourish. Sakura blossoms, on the other hand, are a symbol of the impermanence of life, as they only last for a few weeks before falling from the tree. In Japanese culture, there is a concept called "mono no aware". It is based on the understanding that everything is impermanent so one should find happiness in the now. Sakura blossoms are like the physical construct of this belief. Their short but brilliant blooming time is a reminder that nothing lasts forever and that we should cherish the beauty of the moment.
While both ume blossoms and sakura blossoms are beautiful and meaningful in their own way, they have distinct differences. From their unique appearance to their cultural significance, ume blossoms are a true gem of the spring season. Sakura blossoms, whilst larger and showier, symbolize the impermanence of life and the need to cherish the present moment. Regardless of which flower you prefer, they are both wonderful symbols of the beauty and complexity of nature.
About the author and photographer:
Ailsa van Eeghen
Ailsa has been living in Japan since 2015 all the while enjoying the rich beauty of Kagoshima prefecture. She finds the most joy in exploring little villages, driving around the countryside and exploring the lesser known parts of Japan. Keenly interested in Japan’s regional diversity, you can often find her at michi-no-eki admiring all the local produce. You can find more of her travels and deep dives into Japanese culture on her Instagram @daysofailsa where she writes about her life in Japan.
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March 16, 2023
Hi Cheri! We’re so touched by your kind words and are honored to hear how much you’re enjoying learning about Japanese culture and traditions. Cherry blossom season is definitely one of the most beautiful times of the year in Japan. Hopefully one day you’ll be able to experience it in person!