Southern states are full of gorgeous plants, and warm-weather flowering shrubs are some of the most stunning. One of the prettiest of the warm climate shrubs is the natal plum.
Fast-growing and exceptionally adaptable, natal plum is an easy-to-grow beauty. This lush, fragrant flowering shrub is an evergreen that can bloom throughout the year.
While natal plums blossom heavily in the summer and sporadically in the winter, there are year-long flowers and bright, little fruits on this sweet shrub. If you’re interested in growing natal plum, let’s dig in:
Get to Know Natal Plums
If you’re not a native of USDA growing zones 9b-11, you may not know much about natal plums (Carissa macrocarpa or Carissa grandifolia).
While they’re popular indoor or outdoor bonsai plants even in the north, natal plums can’t survive outdoors in areas where temps consistently drop below 30°F. Established natal plum plants with protection can survive a few dips to about 25°F. In temperatures below consistently below freezing though, the plant will die back to the roots.
Carissa macrocarpa is native to South Africa; that’s how it got its name. The Natal region of South Africa is the orginal home of natal plums. This pretty shrub has thick, ovular, bright green leaves that grow thickly together, often overlapping. Though a few cultivars are thornless, the stems and branches are usually spiked with thorns.
The whole plant is dotted with small, white, star-shaped flowers. These lovely blooms emit a sweet, orange blossom-like aroma. The scent is more pungent at night, making them an ideal addition to patio borders.
Natal plums usually grow to about 2-7 feet tall. Some varieties can reach up to 30 feet, so it’s important to know what variety you’re getting if you don’t want a giant tree instead of a cozy shrub.
Toxicity and Edibility
Natal plum fruits make exceptional jams and jellies. Though the fruits have a thick, waxy skin, they’re sweet and flavorful. The taste is usually compared to cranberries because it’s sweet and tart. But the longer they ripen, the sweeter they become.
Natal plums are high in Vitamin C, too. You can eat them raw or cook them down into preserves.
While the ripe fruit is safe to eat and delightful to cook with, the rest of the plant has a reputation for being toxic. That’s likely a myth, probably founded on the fact that latex is contained within the plant. Latex-containing plants are typically toxic.
But while the rest of the plant may or may not be toxic, it certainly doesn’t taste good.
Let’s just say you shouldn’t eat anything but the berries, and keep this plant out of reach of young children and pets who like to sample everything around them.
There are so many varieties of natal plums to choose from. Pick a cultivar that fits your garden and your plans. Here are just a few of the most stand-out options.
This cultivar is perfect if you’re hoping to harvest fruit regularly. It’s also famous for its abundant pollen. If you’re raising bees and want to ensure they have year-round access to pollen, this is a great cultivar.
This low, spreading shrub makes a gorgeous groundcover. It’s a dwarf variety of natal plum, and creates a lush, green carpet in your garden. It grows to about 24 inches wide and 18 inches tall when mature.
‘Tomlinson’ is a thornless cultivar that is perfect for tight spaces. It grows to just three feet tall and wide. If you’re worried about growing natal plums too close to the porch because of the thorns, ‘Tomlinson’ is the variety for you.
Propagating Natal Plums
The best way to start natal plums is by buying in young plants or by rooting stem cuttings. You can take stem cuttings any time of year. Cut a few four to six-inch pieces of healthy stem from an established plant. Treat these cuttings with a reliable rooting hormone and plant them in moist sand or just put them in a glass of water.
When the roots appear, your cuttings are ready for the next step. Keep them healthy and encourage plenty of root growth by planting them in a loose potting mix with a bit of sand.
Some people like to mimic bonsai soil for growing natal plum plants because it is so well-draining. This soil calls for something like one part peat moss, one part sand, and two parts loam. This soil is well draining and easy for roots to spread in.
Caring for Cuttings
Keep your newly planted cuttings warm. It’s a good idea to set them on a heating pad to maintain an ideal soil temperature of 65°F or more until your cuttings produce new growth. At this stage, keep the soil moist. Don’t overwater, but don’t let the soil dry out completely.
Once the cutting produces new growth, it can be planted properly. They’re truly little shrubs now. You can transplant them into the garden or pot them up to give as gifts.
Planting Natal Plums
Natal plums are exceptionally tough plants! Your natal plums will thrive if you provide a warm, sunny environment and well-draining soil. Though not cold-hardy, natal plums are sturdy, fast-growing shrubs with few diseases or pests.
Choose a sunny spot with sandy, well-drained soil. Natal plums can handle almost any soil, as long as it drains well, but they prefer a sandy environment. These shrubs don’t do well in soggy soil, so well-draining soil is essential.
In scorching and sunny locations, it’s a good idea to plant your natal plums in an area with a bit of afternoon shade.
Natal plums are ideal shrubs for oceanfront gardens. They thrive in salty, oceanside soil and can withstand the salt spray common in seaside locations. With their thick, bright leaves and fresh, white flowers, natal plums look fantastic against the sand or rocky soil by the ocean.
Once your natal plums are transplanted, they don’t need to be watered often. Natal plums are sturdy, drought-tolerant plants. They hate soggy soil. Overwatering will lead to issues with root rot.
Don’t water too often. Let the soil dry out completely before watering. As long as the soil isn’t too wet, natal plums can easily handle humid and dry weather. If you’re growing them as bonsais and keeping them indoors during the winter, it’s a good idea to mist the leaves daily and water them when the soil is dry.
Pests and Diseases
Natal plums have few enemies. There is a tendency toward root rot when they’re overwatered. Aphids sometimes infest natal plums. Check out our guide to learn how best to deal with an aphid infestation.
Occasionally, Florida red scale (Chrysomphalus aonidum) can also afflict natal plums.
All of these issues are signs that your plant is stressed and struggling. When you have symptoms of stress, check your watering first.
Make sure you aren’t overwatering, that your plant has plenty of sunlight, and that the weather is comfortably warm for your plants. Comfortable temperatures are in the mid-60s and above during the day and 50 to mid-60s at night.
Harvesting Natal Plums
These little, red fruits ripen individually throughout the year and only store for up to a week in the refrigerator. So gather enough to make jam, jelly, chutney, or any other preserves and use them immediately. Otherwise, the birds will enjoy them for you.
Though natal plums are small – only about two or three inches in diameter, a few shrubs can produce more than enough fruits to keep you baking pies, and canning preserves all year.
The fruits themselves have seeds, not pits. Your plants will need about two years of growth before putting forth fruit, but once they do, the fruits will continue to ripen all year.
Harvest the fruits when they’re ripe – pink or red-skinned and soft. Then store them until you can use them. They’re great on salads, or sliced up on a breakfast plate with duck eggs and toast.
Unfortunately, though they smell amazing – natal plum flowers are not safe to eat. Leave them on the plant to grow into tasty fruits.
Trimming and Pruning
Natal plum shrubs can grow quite large. They’re easy to trim into hedges or barriers and take well to consistent pruning. That’s why people like to trim them into bonsai. They do well in confinement and with shaping.
Do your major trimming in the fall. This is the time to shape your natal plum into a structured, manageable shape.
Whether you’re using it as a hedge or want easy access to fruit, a pruned shrub is a happy shrub.
Don’t cut away too much of the plant, but if you over-prune, most healthy natal plum plants will bud back quickly in the spring.
If there are any dead branches, especially after winter, trim those away when you see them. Natal plum branches can become brittle when they die, and the sharp thorns are dry and hard, making them easier to cut yourself on as you harvest fruit.