Natal Plum

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Natal Plum, Carissa macrocarpa

Family: Apocynaceaeo

Also known as: Large Num-Num or Carissa

This vigorously spreading, woody, shrub originated in the coastal areas of South Africa on sand dunes and at the edges of coastal forests in Eastern Cape Province northwards stretching through Kwazulu-Natal to Mozambique.  It’s my understanding that natives in these areas make very effective pens comprised of multiples of this plant in which their livestock are kept.

The name Carissa is Sanskrit with the latter part, macrocarpa, derived from the Greek words for ‘large’ and ‘fruit’.  With the name Natal Plum being a bit pedestrian to one’s ear, a person can’t help but, perhaps, preferring that other – onomatopoeic, and fun sounding – “Num-Num” appellation!

Initially brought to the United States in 1886 by the horticulturist Theodore L. Meade, it was introduced into Hawaii in 1905; planted in the Bahamas in 1913; and, first fruited in the Philippines in 1924.  Presently, it is also grown in India as well as East Africa and has been widely planted in Israel where it has flourished and flowered freely – but rarely produces fruit.

Attracting birds and butterflies, the sweet smelling (somewhat like Plumeria, Jasmine or Orange blossoms) white, star-like, flowers have five thick, waxy petals of up to 1.38 inches (35 mm) in diameter.  These fast growing, ornamental blooms appear nearly year around and their scent actually intensifies during the night time!

Its plump, egg shaped, fruit are green when unripe.  High in pectin, as they mature the smooth, tender skin turns a bright magenta-red color and finally dark-crimson.  The flesh is tender, juicy, strawberry colored and sweet/sour flavored.  It is rich in Vitamin C, magnesium and phosphorus.  These can be plucked and eaten (as our guests and I do) or made into pies, preserves, tarts, syrups, pickles, jams, jellies, and sauces.

Ours, in nearly full sun, thrives in a massive – 3’ 3/8” (one meter) across and, slightly less in height – tall pot that we made from an old tinaco (roof top water container). 

As a dense, closely branched, spiny, evergreen, which can attain a height of thirteen to twenty feet (3.96 – 6.09 meters), the Natal Plum is easy to grow with its seeds germinating two to four weeks after planting.  The seedlings are somewhat slow to develop at first but will bear fruit within the first two years.  Some prefer vegetative propagation (plant production from existing vegetative structures) but that process takes two years to realize fruit – I like nature’s way the best!        

Any of the low-to-the-ground varieties or the larger, Carissa macrocarpa, can be employed as an effective garden hedge, where those sharp, forked thorns will keep your neighbor’s dog out!  To achieve this impenetrable hedge, plant these in sandy, well-draining soil, enriched with compost, approximately three feet (one meter) apart in full sun to semi-shade.  They don’t like wet feet and overwatering can cause root rot.  As necessary, it can be pruned if they’re near human traffic-ways.

With its dense, screening foliage and formidable thorns it is a highly effective barrier and, perhaps, the perfect hedge plant.  Add on the deliciously fragrant blossoms and edible fruits, and it’s hard to think of a better shrub for the tropical garden.

In turn, the various Natal Plum cultivars make great ocean front foundation, hedge, container and groundcover plants.  They can be effectively incorporated in containers on ocean front condominium balconies as their thick leathery leaves are neither torn by wind nor bothered by salt spray.

The Natal Plum’s rather lethal Y- shaped spikes are surrounded by leathery – yet handsome – ovoid leaves that are shiny dark green above and pale below.  These grow on attractive, but tough, green branches.  However, nick a branch or pluck a leaf and a white, milky/gummy, non-toxic latex will exude.  

For those who admire this plant, but require something smaller, a low growing form of C. macrocarpa, called ‘Green Carpet’, is a dandy groundcover plant.  It grows not much more than knee height.  This demand for less spiny, low-growing, compact landscape varieties has led to the creation of more dwarf cultivars.  Some of these popular ornamental cultivars include: ‘Bonsai’, ‘Boxwood Beauty’, ‘Dainty Princess’, ‘Grandiflora’, ‘Green Carpet’, ‘Horizontalis’, ‘Linkii’, ‘Low Boy’, ‘Minima’, ‘Nana’, ‘Nana Compacta’, ‘Prostrata’ and ‘Tuttlei’.

Lastly, are these words of warning.  I’ve read in several articles that – with the exception of those delicious, ripe, fat, football-shaped fruits – all other parts of the Natal plum are poisonous.  So, as advised by good nutritionists, “Watch what you eat!”       

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If ever there was a perfumed flower, this is it!

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Among those attractive, ovoid, leathery leaves lie forked lethal thorns.

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Those who know me well will understand that I can’t but say that these ripe fruits are “plum” pretty!