The Natal Plum

Friday, May 4, 2012


As published in the Miami Herald

How would you like to have a beautiful, low-maintenance hedge that produces delicious fruit year-round growing in your landscape? The Natal plum is just such a plant and its dense foliage and thorns make it an effective barrier or security hedge. Add on the deliciously fragrant blossoms and deep green hue of the leaves and it's hard to think of a better shrub for the tropical garden.

Natal plum is native to the Natal Province of South Africa and was a popular landscape tree in South Florida in the 1950s. It is a member of a large and diverse family of plants that include the frangipani. It is a good alternative for seaside properties in South Florida because of its tolerance to salt spray and resistance to damage by wind. It is also well adapted to drought and will require little watering.

The plant will grow to about 10 feet with dark glossy green leaves that are thick and leathery, and arranged in opposing pairs. Forked spines, arm the branches and the ends of the twigs. Broken twigs exude a white milky sap that is harmless, yet can be a nuisance when working with the plant. The Natal plum produces an abundance of white star-shaped flowers with five thick and waxy petals. The flowers are sweetly fragrant, like orange blossoms. The edible fruit is a pretty plum-shaped red berry about 2 inches long which tastes like sweet cranberries with overtones of strawberry or apple. Natal plum blooms almost all year long and most of the time both flowers and fruit are present.

Natal plum fruits are rich in Vitamin C, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. The fruit is especially delicious directly out-of-hand or can be made in juice, jelly, pies or syrups. For harvesting, select large, firm and ripe fruit. If eaten before fully ripe, white, bitter latex is released from the skin. But, you will have to act fast, for the fruit also are eagerly consumed by birds.

Normally Natal plum is propagated by cuttings or can be air layered. It grows quite well on all of our Florida soils, preferring sandy soils. Plants grow well right along the beach path. It makes a perfect option for a container plant on ocean front condominium balconies.  In the high alkaline soils of extreme south Florida it must be fertilized more frequently with trace elements to keep them growing well. A commercial fertilizer 6-6-6, 3 times a year would be adequate for good growth and optimum fruit production.

Young Natal plums are sensitive to cold and they should be protected from temperatures bellow 29F. Once older plants are establish they become cold hardy and take temperatures of 25F without being killed. If the plant is damaged by cold it may freeze to the ground, but it usually comes back in spring.

Natal plum prefers sunny locations and well-drained soils. The plants have a strong root system and a spreading growth habit and general ruggedness that make them well suited for covering exposed ground and preventing erosion. They are not tolerant of flooded conditions and will die if they are submerged for more than a few days. Natal plum prefers to be kept relatively dry and can be severely hampered by overwatering.

It responds well to close pruning and is easily kept at any size. Many of the improved cultivars found in local nurseries have a tendency to revert to a more wild state and it may become necessary to frequently prune off these unwanted reversions (branches). Natal plum plants are found in local nurseries and there are several selections commonly sold, including dwarf types. 

Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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