Don’t dare call them Japanese plumsHAENAM, SOUTH JEOLLA ― While tourist-minded promoters for many Korean cities love to make a fuss about the cherry blossoms this time of year, there is a travel alternative on the peninsula that is slightly less overdone, more personal and perhaps less Japanese: the plum blossoms at Haenam, South Jeolla province.
Outside Korea, these fruits are better known as Japanese plums, or Japanese apricots. In reality, though, the tree came from China’s Szechuan region, and was brought to Korea about 1,500 years ago.
So if you don’t intend to upset the local farmers here ― who think so highly of their fruits that they call them “the green pearls” ― simply call them green plums, or maesil.
They’re about the size of a large olive. The good ones are firm and have small seeds, according to experts.
At Bohae Plum Farm in Haenam, the country’s largest plum plantation, which produces about 500 tons every year, there are more than 50 types of green plum trees, differing according to the size of the fruit or the color of the petals. About half the farm’s trees are Japanese imports; the rest have been locally bred.
Green plums are better known for their fragrance than their taste. The original fruits are very sour and have a bitter aftertaste. You wouldn’t mistake the taste for that of a sweet, European plum.
Green plums are almost never eaten fresh. They are processed in many ways ― most often crushed down to concentrate and used in sweet wines, jams and juices. Wine, with soju often used as the base, is matured for up to five years in a special jar (a bottle sells for 18,000 won ($15) at the farm). But as with other fruit wines, the longer it matures, the better.
Experts say 10 years is ideal for plum wine. And though nothing has been confirmed, there is an old Korean legend that drinking a glass of plum wine aged for more than 100 years will turn a person into a Taoist hermit, with supernatural powers.
Almost nothing is wasted when it comes to plums. In Korea, the seeds of green plums are saved to make pillows, as they were traditionally used to soothe headaches and cool the body in summer. In Eastern medicine, crushed plum seeds are also brewed in hot water and used as prescriptions for poor vision.
Dried plum petals are also made into teas. Plum teas are served as delicacies in many temples in the southern region, where they are treated within the Buddhist tradition as a symbol of sublimity.
If one or two petals can make a fragrant tea, imagine what it would be like to walk across a garden of 14,000 plum trees, surrounded by petals ranging from pale white to dark pink. Visitors can walk through the trees or look down on the view from an observation point.
As flowers, plums mark the start of spring. They are one of the first to bloom, a few weeks earlier than cherry blossoms or yellow dogwood. The typical budding season is from February to late March. This year, due to the late snow and dry weather, the blossoms only began to appear last weekend, and are expected to last another month.
The fruits start to ripen around June. Just before the bugs start to flock, up to 500 workers are brought to the farm in mid-June to harvest the plums over 15 days. It’s a major business for the township of Haenam, which has a population of 90,000, and whose economy relies heavily on agriculture.
Around mid-March, the peak season for plum blossoms, the entire area of Haenam ― “the end of the land,” Koreans call it, since it’s at the far southern end of Baekdudaegan, the mountain chain that stretches across the peninsula ― goes into a festive mood. If you can ignore the loud pop music that street vendors play on their carts, walking through the Bohae Farm is a pleasant experience.
For many centuries, plum blossoms were a common metaphor for nobility and elegance in Korean classics. They have long been a source of inspiration for artists and writers, along with plants like orchids and bamboo.
The plum blossom, which endures strong winds and heavy snows before it buds, was often used in lessons about perseverance. It was a ritual among ancient scholars here to walk through the mountains in winter seeking plum flowers in the forest.
The health factor is another reason for the green plum’s popularity in Korea today. Just as Americans say that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” green plums have a similar reputation here.
Medical research has indicated that a substance in plums called malic acid facilitates digestion, increases saliva and helps ease toothaches and hangovers. And if it doesn’t help your hangover, you can always treat yourself to some plum wine, in hopes of becoming a Taoist god.
Spring flower festivals
Gwangyang Plum Flower Festival
The city of Gwangyang, South Jeolla province, wraps up its annual plum flower festival this weekend. The Maehwa village in Gwangyang has formed a festival village around Cheongmaesil Farm, a plum plantation. One of the city’s attractions is the plum trees planted along the bank of the Seomjin River, making for an atmospheric walk. The best way to enjoy the scenery is to use the bicycle trail or go for a drive in the country. During the festival, a shuttle bus will run between Gwangju Bus Terminal and Maehwa village. The bus runs six times a day and costs 7,700 won ($6.60). For more information, call (061) 797-2363.
Gurye Sansuyu Flower Festival (through March 28)
When plum blossom season ends, the yellow dogwood blossom, or sansuyu, begins to bloom in another part of the southern region, Gurye, a district known for hot springs and for Mount Jiri. Gurye is about half an hour’s drive from Maehwa village in Gwangyang, so you could drop by on your way back to Seoul. In mid-March, the long walkway leading from the festival headquarters to a village on a hill is covered in yellow. Call (061) 780-2227 for more information.
Jeju Cherry Blossom Festival (March 27 and 28)
When plum flowers and yellow dogwood are gone, you still have cherry blossoms. This festival was held in April in previous years, but spring arrived early in Jeju this year. The locals often call Jeju’s cherry blossoms “the kings of cherry blossoms” because their petals are bigger than most. Along “flower hill” near the sports stadium, where the festival is taking place, the cherry blossoms are said to have changed the entire landscape. Call (064) 750-7414.
Jinhae Naval Festival (pictured)
(March 27 to April 5)
This festival, in the port city of Jinhae, was organized around memorial rites and naval tributes to honor Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the legendary 16th-century naval commander who played a key role in repelling Japanese invasions. But Jinhae has the nation’s highest concentration of cherry trees, and the blossoms became a more popular feature. While enjoying the flowering trees along the city streets, you can listen to a navy band. Call (055) 548-2114.
by Park Soo-mee
The best way to get to Bohae Plum Farm from Seoul is to take an express bus to Haenam, which takes a good five hours. At the Haenam Bus terminal, take local bus 109 until you reach Sani-myeon. The farm is a few minutes’ walk from the stop. An alternative is to take a train to Mokpo (4 hours), which is about 40 minutes from Haenam by bus. The train route is beautifully lined by flowers during the spring; on the down side, the train snack car now only sells instant microwave food. Haenam Tourist Hotel, (061) 533-9002, offers rooms for 53,000 won; cheaper rooms are available near the Haenam bus terminal. The farm is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (061) 532-4959.