“Is the spring coming?…What is it like?”…
“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine…”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Winter finally left Sacheon, and with its departure came spring flowers. The plum blossoms signal the start of spring and came out at the end of March. On the heels of the plum blossoms came the cherry blossoms in early April. Since then, my yard seems to surprise me every few days with new flowers. We moved into the house in June, so many of these colorful treasures are surprises as they weren’t all here by then. I wake up to many perfectly perfect days and think, “Spring is my favorite.” (I will think the same thing about summer, fall, and the first part of winter, too.) It has been so many years since I really experienced spring that I am pinching myself at my good fortune.
I spent my first 36 years in the Midwest of the United States, and that area generally enjoys lovely spring seasons. However, my last 15 years in the US were spent in north Texas, where it seemed that everything was perpetually brown – with a blazing hot sun burning up the grass and trees. I don’t recall much color outside of the months of March and April. The Republic of Korea is simply glorious this time of year. I’ve read and heard that spring and fall are short, but I believe spring will last close to three months. It is time to get outdoors, time for visitors, time for picnics, and time for rebirth.
I have been fortunate to meet a group of Korean women who meet every Tuesday for an outing or just lunch and coffee and who indulge the company and endless curiosity of expat women. Being with them on Tuesday outings means one is guaranteed to see blossoms at peak bloom, visit sites when the fall colors are at their best, know when to visit a festival and where to park, and know where to visit for the best of various Korean foods. The grace and hospitality of these women is limitless, and I am indebted to the person who invited me to join the group. What started as an intimate group has grown tremendously with so many new expats. The Koreans continue to host us and treat us to their wealth of knowledge and pride despite our numbers.
At the end of March, the group brought us to the Gwangyang International Maehwa Festival. The festival is in Seomjin Village – home to the largest number of plum blossom trees in Korea. During the festival, visitors can walk beneath endless plum blossoms, purchase small plum blossom trees, and sample and purchase local organic plum products. The name plum, however, is misleading. The tree species is related to both the plum and apricot and is referred to as a plum in English and Chinese although more closely relates to the apricot. The fruit of the tree is used in Asian cooking in juices, as a flavoring for alcohol, as a pickle, in sauces, and in traditional medicine. It is an early flowering tree (late winter and early spring) so is regarded as a seasonal symbol. The festival allowed me to sample endless apricot pickles, and I purchased a couple containers.
Most US residents haven’t had apricots outside of the dried variety. I’ve been able to eat fresh apricots here, which are juicy, sweeter versions of the dried kind. The pickled versions are sweet and sour, and I find them wonderful on their own as a side dish or on a sandwich or mixed in with a main course. I am fortunate to have two very small versions of these in my yard. Once the blossoms fall off and the fruit develops, it’s the summer. I had no idea what I had last year so did nothing with them. However, this year I am ready to pickle!
The plum blossoms are very quickly followed by cherry blossoms. While plum blossom trees are not hard to find here, cherry blossom trees are impossible to miss. The country is filled with them. Like the plum, these blossoms are fragile, beautiful, and short-lived. The blossom period seems to last no longer than two weeks, and the entire country seems to celebrate them. Tour busses and cars filled with groups of friends, families, couples, and singles flock to the various festivals throughout the country to see the blooms. And while the blossom season is short, they all appear to bloom at once, reflecting trees covered in brilliant and delicate pink. When they blow away, pink “snow” covers the streets, sidewalks, and fields. For me, this was the true start of spring.
The cherry blossoms have been followed by mountains and roadsides covered with azaleas. These lovely flowers last longer, and I’ve been on at least four hikes to see them in various places. And, of course, azalea season is filled with azalea festivals. While azaleas are less exotic to westerners, it is exotic to see mountainsides covered with the blooms.
The biggest surprise for me in my first spring here is our yard. There are at least 17 different flowers and flowering plants in our garden, many of which were no longer blossoming by the time we moved in last year. It is a regular surprise to see what new beauty has opened up to greet the sun. There are plum and cherry trees, irises, hyacinths, dianthus, coryanthes, orange honeysuckle, poppies, and numerous unknown blooms. After what was for me a difficult winter, all of this new life gives me new life. I am brought back to the initial excitement of being here – remembering my joy at all the new discoveries and reliving the wonder at Korea’s beauty.
The summer will arrive, and with it, the hot temperatures and unbelievable humidity. But I was born in the summer. I love summer and am determined to enjoy it. For now, however, I am relishing the beauty of spring and my adopted home.
*Featured image taken by Amy Beerwinkle.