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What Is a Natal Plum?

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  • Written By: Melanie Smeltzer
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 02 August 2014
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The natal plum is a species known as macrocarpa that belongs to the Carissa genus and Apocynaceae family. This plant, which is native to South Africa, is an evergreen, thorny shrub that bears delicate pink or white flowers and fleshy red fruits. Although the fruit itself is edible, the rest of the plant is considered poisonous if consumed. Additionally, the twigs contain a milky sap that may irritate the skin on contact.

Easy to grow, the natal plum is considered a relatively strong plant that typically begins to germinate two to four weeks after seeds are sewn. Natal plums grown in the wild can reach heights of 20 feet (6.1 m), but cultivated plants are generally smaller, usually growing between 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 m) in height. Their deep green leaves are glossy, leathery, and oval-shaped. The flowers, which are especially fragrant at night, are small, waxy, and star-like in shape.

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Two of the most characteristic features of the natal plum are its fruits and thorns. The thorns can reach lengths of 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5.1 cm) and can develop along the branches or at the ends of the twigs. Plum-like in appearance, the fruits are actually large berries that can reach roughly 2 inches (5.1 cm) in length. These berries are a deep red in hue and bear a distinctive flavor, similar to cranberries. In many areas, the natal plum will bloom nearly the entire year; however, the fruits will not usually appear until the plant is about two years old.

Considered a traditional food plant in its native South Africa, the natal plum is an important commercial plant. In parts of southern Natal, the fruits of these plants are sold in large quantities from January to February. Despite this, the natal plum is not typically grown as an orchard crop, but is instead gathered from hedgerows and ornamentals scattered across South Africa.

Widely thought to be a relatively strong plant, the natal plum can be grown in a variety of conditions. Despite this, it grows best in bright sunlight, in moderate warmth, and with plenty of humidity. These plants also prefer well-drained, sandy soil and close pruning. Although it can withstand a good deal of abuse, this plant does have a few weaknesses. For instance, it cannot tolerate extreme cold or frost, and is prone to fungal and spider mite infestations.

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