I once made a long trip out to Xiang Xuehai in Jiangsu Province just to see Chinese plum blossoms. The small, picturesque mountain is famous for plum blossoms pilgrimages, after our Kangxi Emperor did the same thing I did hundreds of years previously. In late February, plum trees just began to flower, and from the hillside I was at, the more startling sight was the horde of visitors with the same idea -- literally thousands of cars lining up on the roads to partake in one of China's most celebrated recreational activities. But you don't have to go as far as I did for a little plum blossom viewing for yourself...
So what is it about plum blossoms that make them significant in Chinese culture?
Admiration for the plum blossom is almost hard-wired in our brains. The flower plays a big role in Chinese culture, appearing in numerous poems, cultural productions, and paintings. In school, we're taught that there are "Three Friends of Winter"(岁寒三友), meaning three durable plants of winter: pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms; and "Four Noble Ones" (四君子): plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, and chrysanthemums. These common plants in Mainland China are beloved for their modest beauty and ability to persevere during the harsh winter climates. Among them, plum blossoms are especially romanticized as symbols of resilience, humility, and inner beauty. The flower looks the most vibrant during winter. It has a subtle fragrance. It's small but exquisite.
So what am I looking for? What are the common species of plum blossoms?
There are over 300 recorded cultivars in China. The most common one, the variety you can spot around the streets of Shanghai, is probably la mei (腊梅, "winter sweet"), named after its wax-like petals.
These lao lamei (老腊梅, "old winter sweet") at the entrance of Century Park are a bit special, though. They originally grew wild on the cliffs of Daba mountain in Sichuan and were then cultivated and crafted into many varieties by locals families, and eventually transported to Shanghai in 2009. Some of the flowers have red inner tepals, and the buds look almost identical to wax (腊) beads.
The green and white lv e (lǜ è) (绿萼), the pink gong fen mei (宫粉梅) and the dark red zhu sha mei (朱砂梅) are the other three common varieties here. There are reportedly among over 4,000 of plum trees planted in Century Park this year.
When is the best time to see plum blossoms? And where can I see them?
Late February to the end of March is the best time for Chinese plum blossoms viewing. The city has a few plum blossoms festivals taking place and the one in Century Park is the easiest to access by public transport. Plum blossoms gardens from cities around Shanghai contribute together to exhibit at this giant park. Some of the plum tree species have been crafted through generations by local gardeners to enhance their ornamental value.
If you're are willing to travel a bit further south, the biggest plum blossoms takes place in Shanghai Haiwan National Forest Park. This year, over 47,000 of plum trees are said to be on display until March 31. Gucun Park, Shanghai Botanical Garden, Jing'an Sculpture Park and the more ancient ones in Shanghai such as Shanghai Da Guan Yuan and Guyi Garden also have medium to small-scale plum blossoms gardens.
It took me a good hour or two to stroll around the plum blossoms areas in Century Park. It's busy even on a weekday, and it's one of the many places in Shanghai whose demographics is made up of a disproportionately high concentration of retired female citizens. Having said that, it's not very hard to find some relatively quiet spots. And if you're into photography, you won't get too frustrated to get some decent shots. Just ... maybe don't go during weekends.
The plum blossoms festival in Century Park runs until March 20. It's free from 6am to 8am. After that it's 10rmb for adults. It runs from 6am to 5pm from November 16 to March 15, the rest of time, it closes at 6pm.