The connection of plum blossoms and spring, historically, is well known. As I have written before, however, the ume no hana spoken of in old Japanese hokku — conventionally translated as “plum blossoms,” were not really plum blossoms as we generally think of them, but rather the flowers of the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume). In spite of that, when an English speaker reads Japanese spring hokku about plum blossoms, it is perfectly natural to envision the blossoms of Prunus domestica, which gives us our edible plums and prunes, or perhaps those of Prunus salicina, the “Satsuma” plum, which is native to China, but is grown both in Japan and in the West now.
As regular readers here know, I often “westernize” hokku in translation, though I note the fact to avoid confusion. So of course it does not bother me in the least that we think of these other plums, rather than of the Japanese apricot, when we read old spring hokku. Further, what applies to that tree applies also to the plums grown in the West, so for practical and aesthetic purposes it is really advantageous for us to think of “our” kinds of plums instead of what the original hokku technically signified.
Having gotten through all that dull introduction, we are ready to take a look at some spring plum hokku. The significant thing about the plum in that context is that it is an early bloomer, flowering often when the weather still can be cold and unsettled, in that time of the yearly transition from winter weather to that of early spring.
We see that period of change in a hokku by Buson:
In every nook and corner
The cold lingers;
In the original, “every nook and corner” is really a repetition of the same word — sumi, meaning “corner.” When used twice (zumi the second time for euphony) as sumizumi, it literally is “corner-corner,” but the “every nook and corner” understanding of the term is what it signifies.
Regular readers here know that spring is a time of increasing Yang energy. The cold Yin energy of winter is waning, but as Buson tells us here, when the plum begins to bloom, the cold still lingers in all the little shady spots and corners and hollows. The word I translate here as “lingers” is nokoru in the original, which means “to remain, to be left over or left behind.”
The blooming of the plum tree of course has a direct relationship to the amount of warmth and light present. The warmer the air, the more blossoms will pop open. That is why Ransetsu wrote what I call his “thermometer” hokku:
A plum blossom —
One blossom’s worth
What I translate as “blossom’s worth” — the word hodo — means “an extent or degree or measure” of something. So we could be playful, and translate it as
A plum blossom —
One blossom degree
The concept behind this hokku is the notion that the more plum blossoms open, the higher the temperature of the air and the farther along the advancement of spring. It shows a unity between the blossoms and the growing warmth, in contrast to our “rational” way of thinking in terms of action (the warming of the air) and consequence (a plum blossom opens), cause and effect.