My social media feed has been inundated with videos of my friends and their children going bayberry picking back in Lishui, Zhejiang Province. I had never seen, let alone heard of, bayberries before I moved to southern China, and watching my friends having a blast picking them has brought back so many great memories! To commemorate bayberry season, I thought it would be fun to share a few fun facts and stories about this unique fruit.
In May, the bayberry is full of trees, and at first I suspected that one is worth a thousand gold.”Ping Kezheng, Tang Dynasty Poet
Chinese bayberries (yángméi, 杨梅) are round, red fruit native to East Asia, specifically the subtropical slopes of China south of the Yangzi River (pronounced yahng-zuh). They also grow as far north as Korea and on down to the Philippines.
Other names for the Chinese Bayberry include shengsheng plum, yamamomo in Japan (ヤマモモ, “mountain peach”), red bayberry, waxberry, or Chinese strawberry (often mistranslated from Chinese as arbutus).
Legend of the Bayberries
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful minor deity, Meizhu (pronounced may-joo), who lived amongst the gods in the celestial realm. On an outing down in the mortal world , Meizhu was kidnapped by an evil demon. A huntsman, a mere human who lived in what is now Wuxi Province, came to her rescue. She married the hunter and they lived happily together until one day the demon came back for revenge.
After a great battle, the hunter slayed the demon, but he was sadly unable to save Meizhu. The hunter buried her, and a year later a large tree appeared at her gravesite. It bore round fruit that tasted sweet with a slight bitter tang. The villagers nearby took this fruit as a sign from Meizhu to remember how sweet life is and how bitter the separation of a loved one can be. Later generations called the fruit bayberries!
(For another fun Chinese demon story, see my post on Lishui’s Xia He Tower.）
Are they Berry Sweet?
I find that bayberries taste somewhere in-between the sweet tartness of a raspberry and a pomegranate. Generally, the key to finding the sweeter ones versus the super sour is to make sure to pick berries that are darker red, almost crimson or purple in color. Do not go for the tiny, bright red ones!
“Yupan Yangmei is set for the king, With salt is like flowers and white snow”Li Bai, Tang Dynasty Poet
Bayberries can be used the same way any berries are used, including cakes, smoothies, ice-cream, jam, salads, fruit leather, candy, etc. Bayberry tree bark is also used as a yellow dye.
Facing Yangmei, it seems that you are facing the beautiful women of Jiangnan: round, like those passionate eyes; rosy, like those gorgeous red lips; sweet and sour, like the soft words of Wu Yan; soft and juicy, like a charming kiss.Ping Kezheng, Tang Dynasty Poet
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Generally in China, bayberries are considered a superfruit. They are loaded with vitamins, such as riboflavin, thiamine and carotene, and have lots of vitamin C. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) takes their health properties a step further by positing each part of the bayberry plant as having a long list of health benefits. Some of the claims sound reasonable, but be warned against scams. For instance, while bayberries might help to relieve indigestion, coughing, and diarrhea, I am doubtful that they can prevent and treat cholera, cure athletes’ foot, calm the liver, and reinvigorate the spleen, as some TCM practitioners believe.
A side note on Traditional Chinese Medicine: TCM is a fascinating subject that has been evolving over thousands of years. I do think there are some grains of truth to some claims, for example using the pressure spot by one’s pyloric sphincter to help with tummy troubles or the advice on avoiding eating too many fried foods.
Yet, as with any homeopathic pseudo-science, it is best to take them with a grain of salt. TCM is unregulated and there are many quacks out there who say their concoctions will cure anything under the guise of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and, while it is fun to try in terms of health benefits, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
(For more about TCM, see my past post on The Chinese Inch)
The Tale of the Bayberry Swindler
As I was looking for further information on this fruit, I came across an interesting news article involving an internet scam. At first, it sounds like your run-of-the-mill catfishing scheme, but the addition of bayberries makes it even more engrossing. Here’s my hot take of the story, but for additional details, check out the full story on sohu.com or the Guizhou protectorate:
Pan Mou is a single mother in Zhejiang Province who lives for the thrill of gambling. The sheer joy of winning would eclipse any sense of responsibility or guilt until the day came where she gambled away her life savings. To continue feeding her addiction, in August of 2020, Pan Mou began luring unsuspecting men into giving her cash online.
Pan Mou gained attention on social media, spinning heartbreaking yarns and pleading for help under the guise of various aliases. In one instance, she was given money by a gentleman after claiming she could not afford to see a doctor and was going to kill herself. She convinced another man to take pity on her by stating she could not pay her child’s tuition fees. Oddly, with every encounter, Pan Mou would first send each man a basket of bayberries. This gesture somehow assuaged any suspicions and helped her gain her victims’ trust. Nevertheless, she grew arrogant and sloppy with her scheme over time and was eventually captured by the police.
It boggles my mind that it took her final victims sooo long to finally report her. The dupe who eventually turned her in did so after repeatedly giving her money at least four times if not more – the man loaned her money when she said her “dad” was dying and needed money for his hospital fees. Then, when the dad “died,” Pan Mou’s victim gave her money to afford the dad’s funerary costs.
Following this, the man gave Pan Mou even more money to pay off her dad’s debts when she asked. Later, Pan Mou was able to convince this man again to give her money because her “eldest brother” was in jail and had no funds to pay neither bail nor his debts. After all this, Pan Mou had the nerve to request additional money from this man to help find her brother a girlfriend!
In court, Pan Mou asserted that she was just borrowing the money without criminal intent and wrote IOUs to each of her victims. However, Pan Mou received her just desserts when she was sentenced in April of 2022 to ten years and eight months in prison for fraud, fined 130,000 yuan, and needed to refund more than 1.15 million yuan from her illicit activity.
A Berry for Your Thoughts?
Wild, huh? I’m not sure why the victims felt Pan Mou’s sob stories were legit after she gifted them bayberries. It makes no sense to me. Would it have made a difference if she gave them, say, bananas? If anyone can explain if there is a deeper cultural significance to the gift, please let me know! In the meantime, I’ll be here wistfully dreaming about fresh bayberries until I can taste them again.
Until next time,
Thousands of forests are red with fire and pearls, bayberries ripe until the beginning of the summer solstice.Ping Kezheng, Tang Dynasty Poet
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