Fantastic Blooms and Where to Find Them

Sansuyu (Photo by Rachel Hill)

Words by Rachel Hill
Photos by Joe Wabe, Lorryn Smit and Rachel Hill

There is nothing more exciting than seeing the first blossoms after a gray winter. Once they start blooming, they sweep the land in sweet-smelling happiness.

When we see those popcorn-like puffs up in the trees in varying shades of white, pink, and yellow, what are we really looking at? Let’s take a minimally science-y look at what specifically is blooming ’round these parts so you can impress your colleagues, wow your friends, or simply just have the knowledge in your arsenal.

OK class, today we are going to chat about a few different cherry tree types, cherry tree look-alikes, and how to identify them. And since I value your education, we will talk about a few bonus plants that will bloom in the coming months.

First is the standard cherry tree, known more scientifically as the “king cherry” or the “Yoshino cherry” (in Korean, simply 벚꽃). Most cherry trees in Korea have descended from these, and therefore, there are countless variations that one might see. These are the most common pink or white blossoms that we identify with the season.

However, lurking unbeknownst to most, is another “cherry” tree variety known as the sansuyu (산수유), or Cornelian cherry dogwood. This tree has bright yellow blooms and produces a sort of long-looking cherry that is used in some Korean traditional foods.

Let’s add an additional tree into the equation: the plum tree, otherwise known as maehwa (매화) or “Asian plum/apricot.” This tree’s blossoms are most commonly confused with standard cherry blossoms due to their similar size and color.

Now that we have been introduced to the cast, let’s learn a little bit about their similarities and differences.

Bloom Time
Plum trees bloom here much earlier than their cherry counterparts, giving us somewhat of a false spring. What a bunch of misleading jerks. But once they start blooming in mid-to-late February, they set off a chain reaction for the rest of the blossoms to come out; cherries generally starting in April.

The easiest way to differentiate between cherry and plum blossoms is petal shape. Cherry blossoms have a little split at the end of every petal, whereas plums do not exhibit these. There are several species of these trees, so the number of petals does vary. Imagine the cherry as a “W” and a plum as a “U” with petals facing downwards.

The buds of these blossoms are supposedly shaped differently (cherry buds: oval; plum buds: round), but from my entirely anecdotal evidence, I would say they both look the same. However, if you look at the buds, you might be able to determine the difference due to how many blossoms seem to be appearing. From one plum bud it is possible to have only one blossom. But from one cherry bud, it is possible to have many blossoms.

Look at the blossom’s stem. If you are asking “where is the stem?” then it is likely a plum blossom, as they grow directly from the tree branch. If there is a stem between the bud and the branch, congratulations, you have likely found a cherry blossom!

If it were possible to insert a scratch-and-sniff, I would do so here. Unfortunately, you did not pay enough for this issue of Gwangju News to have that kind of cutting-edge technology. But in general, cherry blossoms have a very light fragrance, compared to the sweet flowery fragrance of plum blossoms.

If you thought you would be able to differentiate solely on color, you are a little bit out of luck. Both cherry blossoms and plum blossoms can be varying shades of white, and light and dark pink. Generally, though, if you see a very dark bloom, it is likely a plum blossom. Do not forget about our buddy the trusty sansuyu, which is an unmistakable shade of bright yellow.

Tree Bark
Say you want to identify a tree in the wintertime without any visible leaves or buds. A cherry tree is more easily identified by its lighter, almost grayish bark with distinctive horizontal lines, whereas the bark of a plum tree is a bit darker and rougher. In more pedestrian terms: the plum tree looks more traditionally tree-ish with thicker bark that looks like you could pull it off, while the cherry tree seems to have thinner skin.

Great! Now you can probably confidently assess whether one of our beautiful spring trees is a cherry or a plum bearer. As promised, here are a few other blooms that you can expect to see in the coming weeks that are not up in a tree.

Japanese Cherry: Photo by Lorryn Smit

Forsythias (개나리)
Much like the sansuyu tree, forsythias have bright yellow blossoms. They also bloom right after the sansuyu in April. However, these blossoms do not come from a tree. Instead, they bloom from a sort of wiry bush bramble. Springtime in Korea brings a whole lot of yellow blossoms, so if you want to identify forsythias, look for four petals that join at the base, as this is common for most species of forsythia.

Azaleas: Royal Azaleas (진달래: 철쭉)
Delicate pink blossoms with small darker spots on the upper three petals are azaleas. I am told by the Internet that the shape is “obovate,” which sounds like a Harry Potter spell to me. Look for light pink blossoms that seem like they belong on a cherry tree but are instead growing from a shrub. Also, look for those dark speckles on an otherwise lighter blossom.

Plum Bud (Photo by Joe Wabe)

Magnolias (목련)
Though this tree blooms in early summer, I felt it was worth a mention. These bigger blossoms (when compared to most of the other blossoms mentioned here) similarly bloom from a large shrub or small tree. They are somewhat cup-shaped, and their petals are soft like velvet. Fun fact: This is the national flower of North Korea. These are one of my favorite flowers in Asia, as they remind me of the film Mulan, in which the father gifts Mulan a blossom. They also smell great.

I would like to add a disclaimer that I am no blossom expert. The information presented here is mostly anecdotal, tidbits from colleagues, and help from the Google machine. If you are into botany, take this article as a starting point, and get out there and explore! Next time, you get to teach the class.

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