The Natal plum is a beautiful tropical shrub grown mostly as a flowering landscape specimen, but also for its small fruits, which taste like cranberries and are used in jams and jellies. Like Indian hawthorn, Natal plumb is used frequently in commercial landscapes in warmer climates, where its pretty white star-shaped flowers and fragrance are highly prized.
Natal plum is not related to the true plum (Prunus × domestica), but is so-named because of the shape and color of the 1- to 2-inch fruits. Natal plum has ovate leaves that are dark green and leathery, with a glossy sheen. If you have smelled orange blossoms, you know what Natal plum flowers smell like. Each flower features five waxy petals arranged in a star shape. They are usually 1 to 3 inches long and are formed along the branch in an opposite arrangement.
This shrub has a moderate to fast growth rate and is best planted (or transplanted) in fall or winter. It will take about two years for the shrub to mature enough to produce harvestable fruits.
|Botanical Name||Carissa macrocarpa|
|Common Name||Natal plum|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen shrub|
|Size||Usually 2 to 7 feet, but some varieties can grow to 30 feet|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic to slightly alkaline (6.1–7.5)|
|Hardiness Zones||9–11 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Natal region of South Africa|
|Toxicity||All parts except fruit are mildly toxic|
How to Plant Natal Plum
For best results, plant Natal plum in sandy soil that drains well, as this will help naturally deter root rot. If you have grown a specific variety and wish to have more plants, propagate them from cuttings to ensure all of the plants have the same characteristics.
Most varieties of this shrub have sharp spines, so it can work well as a barrier or hedge. You can shape Natal plum into a tree form or hedge through pruning. Trimming will also prompt the shrub to produce more flowers and fruit. You may need to prune plants that are close to a sidewalk so that pedestrians do not get injured by the spines.
Smaller cultivars can be grown as indoor container plants, but make sure thorny varieties are positioned so they won't scratch passers-by.
Natal Plum Care
Grow Natal plum in a location that receives full sun for the best results. It will also do fine in light shade but will likely not have as many flowers and fruits.
Natal plums are not picky about soil, so long as it is well-drained. In general, these plants prefer a slightly acid or neutral pH, but will tolerate slightly alkaline soil. These plants are salt-tolerant and do well near coastal areas.
Water monthly to weekly depending on the variety, but be careful not to overwater as Natal plum is susceptible to root rot. Make sure soil dries out completely between waterings. Good drainage is very important. Natal plum is fairly drought-tolerant.
Temperature and Humidity
The Natal plum thrives in temperatures that range above 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and between 50 and 65 degrees at night. They are quite sensitive to cold—young plants cannot tolerate temps below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and established plants can be killed by temps below 25 degrees. These plants are equally tolerant of humid and dry air conditions, provided they get enough soil moisture.
Use a fertilizer that has equal parts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This will help maintain the shrub's general health and promote fruiting.
Varieties of Natal Plum
- 'Emerald Blanket' is a dwarf cultivar. It is a low, spreading plant that is often used as a ground cover shrub.
- 'Nana' is a thornless dwarf cultivar that grows to only 12 to 18 inches tall and wide and has white flowers.
- 'Boxwood Beauty' is another thornless variety. It has a mounded growth habit and is often used as a foundation planting or ground cover. It has white flowers and matures at about 24 inches tall and wide.
- 'Fancy' is a standard upright form with upright, large fruit.
- 'Tomlinson' is a standard-sized thornless variety.
- Variegata' has cream to yellow variegation.
Harvesting Natal Plum
The fruits of Natal plum ripen individually, not all at once. Pick them from the shrub as soon as they achieve a dark red or purple color. They will persist in a ripened state on the tree for several days without spoiling. The fruit will store up to one week in the refrigerator and may be used in jams, jellies, pies, and preserves.
Is Natal Plum Toxic?
Natal plum, like many other plants in the Apocynaceae (dogbane) family, have parts that are toxic. Most poisonous plant databases rate this plant, a relative of highly toxic oleander, as mildly toxic, with common listed symptoms including nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. You can eat the fruit when it is ripe, but do not eat the leaves or stems.
Propagating Natal Plum
Natal plum is easy to propagate using stem cuttings which can be taken at any time of the year. Select 4- to 6-inch cuttings, treat them with rooting hormone, and either insert them in moist sand or place them in a glass of water. Once the roots appear, plant the stems in a mix that consists of one part sand, one part peat moss, and two parts loam. Keep the new cuttings moist (not wet), and provide bottom heat with a heating pad until new growth begins. At this point, the cuttings can be potted into larger containers or transplanted into the garden.
Common Pests and Diseases
You should not have many pest problems with this shrub. You may see Florida red scale (Chrysomphalus aonidum) or aphids, which can be removed with horticultural soap. Fungal infestation may occur if a Natal plum is overwatered.