Yesterday I realized that despite having lived more than 15 years in Japan, I can’t tell the difference between a plum blossom and a cherry blossom. Even more shockingly, my Japanese wife, and many other Japanese people can’t either. They both come in a wide variety of colors, and both blossoms have five petals each.

Of course sakura (cherry blossoms) and ume (plum blossoms, or more accurately, Japanese apricot) do bloom at different times, so if you see them in February you know they’re probably plum blossoms, and if you see them in April, they’re probably cherry blossoms. There are some plum blossoms still on the trees now, though, and there were early-blooming cherry trees a few weeks ago, so it’s not always easy, and you often see them misidentified on various websites and blogs.

Anyway, I did some research, and here’s how to tell the difference:

1. Look at the stems. Cherry blossoms are usually connected by a long stem to the branch. Plum blossoms are usually (but not always) stuck right on the branch.**

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

2. Plum blossoms tend to be round, whereas cherry blossoms are oval, and tend to have a little indentation at the top of the petal.
ume blossom

Plum blossoms.

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

ume blossoms

This is my son Matthew enjoying some early-blooming cherry blossoms called higan zakura in Ueno Park yesterday.

By the way, these photos (except the last one) come from the excellent freeimages.com website, an excellent place to find free photos on the Web.

** Sorry, originally I had posted this photo as an example of cherry blossoms that are off the branch. I have been informed in the comments section, however, that they are actually cherry-plum blossoms. Not all plum blossoms grow on the branch, so you have to be careful.

cherry-plum blossoms

Editor’s note: this post was originally published in March 2010 and has been updated.