It's time of the year again for berries, cherries and plums. And among them all, Chinese bayberries (yang mei 杨梅) are considered the king. They are tart, sweet and juicy, a favorite in summer.
Every year in mid-June, dark purple-red bayberries are everywhere in markets. They are eaten fresh, canned, dried, juiced, made into jam or soaked in baijiu (distilled alcoholic beverage).
Dark red bayberries are extremely nutritious, containing antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and microelements. It has the same antioxidants that give red wine its heart benefits. It also boosts the immune system and slows cell aging.
Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes bayberries to stimulate the appetite and dispel damp yin ("cold") energy. It is used to aid digestion and treat diarrhea.
Because of tartness, berries are sometimes dipped into syrup, honey or condensed milk to create a delicate flavor. Sugar is often sprinkled on bayberries that are then placed in the fridge and served as a summer dessert.
They are also marinated in liquor to make bayberry spirit. After being washed and dried, they are placed in baijiu, sugar is added, the jar is sealed and set aside for 15 to 30 days before drinking. The longer it is sealed, the better the taste. Some families make their own and seal the infusion for half a year. It is then used for medicinal purposes.
Liu Guangzhi, a 69-year-old retiree, says he makes bayberry liquor almost every year.
"I love drinking and I believe bayberry wine can cure diarrhea," he says.
Liu remembers that he suffered from diarrhea last summer, "and I got better after drinking bayberry liquor for three days!" he says.
Doctors say the myricetin, an antioxidant flavonoid, in bayberries is an anti-inflammatant, which can treat diarrhea but cannot replace medicine.
"It's fine to drink bayberry liquor to relieve symptoms, but alcohol is not suitable to everyone's constitution," says Wang Jiayuan, a TCM doctor at Shanghai Yueyang Hospital.
Bayberry flourishes around the world. In China, it was grown more than 7,000 years ago in what is now Zhejiang Province. Bayberry pollen has been identified in a neolithic site in Zhejiang. It has more than 50 subspecies, widely planted in Hunan, Guangdong and Guizhou provinces, as well as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Ancient Chinese writers praised the taste of bayberries. Su Dongpo in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) wrote, "The lychee from Fujian and Guangdong and the grapes of Gansu are not as good as the bayberries of Zhejiang."
According to legend, a goddess of fruits named Mei Zhu was kidnapped by a demon and rescued by a hunter. The two married but Mei Zhu was pushed off a cliff by a demon. Before dying she asked the hunter to bury her under a big tree. Two years after burial, the tree bore fuschia fruit that tasted sweet and sour.
People say the fruits represent the goddess who wanted people to remember her sweet life with the hunter as well as the sour ending of her life.
Bayberries produced in Jingzhou, Hunan Province, are considered by many to be one of the best in China because they are large, with a small pit and a fresh, sweet taste.
Zhejiang bayberries from Xianju and Huangyan are popular but they don't come onto the market until July. Known as Dongkui bayberries, they are the largest grown in China and known as the "bayberry king."
Most berries are fuschia in color, but some are white. In ancient China, white bayberries were rare and given as tribute to the imperial family. Today they are also called crystal bayberries and have a softer taste.
In early summer Shanghai people drive to Zhejiang to pick bayberries and enjoy the countryside. Yuyao, where the Hemudu Neolithic Site is located, is the cradle of bayberries. As bayberries ripen, so do orchids in the area.
Every June a bayberry festival is held in Yuyao, where visitors can taste the freshest bayberries as fruit, juice, liquor and other products. They can also pick the fruit. Since bayberries spoil quickly, it's best to go sightseeing first and then pick fruit.
Those who drive, can take the Hangzhou-Ningbo highway and get off at the Yuyao exit. There are also sightseeing buses from Shanghai to Yuyao on weekends.
In other places in Zhejiang, such as Xianju and Xiandu, orchids bloom at the same time the bayberries ripen. Visitors can eat bayberries in spots surrounded by orchids, but if they want to take orchids home, they must purchase them.
Other seasonal fruits available in June
Peaches, symbol of longevity, are popular for sweetness and juice. Peaches are nutritious and contain many antioxidants and micro-elements that benefit overall health. They are good for the skin, aid digestion and moisten the lungs.
Muskmelons are not as juicy as watermelons but they are sweeter. They are very nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin C. They benefit the cardiovascular system, living and blood production.
The Chinese word for loquat is pipa (枇杷), the same pronunciation with the traditional Chinese lute. The fruit is shaped like the instrument. Loquats help relieve coughing and stop vomiting. They boost the immune system.
Although plums are a bit tart, they improve the appetite and aid digestion. Filled with antioxidants, they help lower blood pressure. Because they contain acid, eating too many can cause stomachache.
Lychees are among the most popular fruit produced in southern China. They are rather sweet. They contain vitamins and minerals that benefit the spleen.
In traditional Chinese medicine, lychee is considered to contain yang (hot) energy, so eating too many supposedly increases internal heat. People with sore throat or bleeding gums should not eat too many.