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What Is a Natal Plum?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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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Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Jan 25, 2015

@discographer-- I think they would grow in warm areas like Florida, Texas and California.

I'm in the Midwest and I've never seen them here. I had seen them in India. I think this fruit is also common in Southeast Asia. The climate there is also very suitable for natal plum.

What I find most interesting about this fruit is that despite being called a plum, it's actually not a plum at all. The fruit just resembles plums.

By discographer — On Jan 24, 2015

What other countries do natal plums grow in? Is it possible to grow them here in the States at all? Would they grow in Florida? I can get a hold of natal plum seeds but I'm not sure if they will grow here.

By stoneMason — On Jan 24, 2015

I was in South Africa last summer and saw this plant quite a few times. I fell in love with the delicate white flowers. They reminded me of larger jasmine flowers, very beautiful. And they also make a great contrast with natal plums which are a very bright color.

I did try one fresh but it was very sour. I agree with the article that it's similar to the taste of cranberries. I think it's a fairly popular fruit though. I didn't have the opportunity to taste natal plum jelly or jam but I'm sure it's delicious.

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