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Tree of the Month - October 2003: Natal Plum – Carrisa grandiflora
By Ken Schultz
Much to my amazement, not many of my 38 bonsai books had a Natal Plum; in fact only three had an entry. These were: “the Complete Bonsai Handbook” by Darlene Dunton, “Indoor Bonsai” – Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and “Bonsai In Your Home” by Paul Lesniewicz. This caused me to resort to the Internet for additional information. Actually, “Bonsai In Your Home” called Natal Plum, Carrisa macrocarpa; I tried to determine if they were referring to something slightly different than the treasured cascade that we have in the Franklin Park Conservatory collection, some of the Internet sites had photos that lead me to believe it is a different variety, but another seemed the same. I do have a miniature leaved natal plum in my collection at home. I got it at Meehan’s over in Rhorville Md.; it was sold to me as “Pettit Point”. The Carrisa macrocarpa I found on the Internet seems to have pointier leaves that are tighter to the stem. Indoor Bonsai was also limited to one very short paragraph. Dunton’s book has only a black and white photo of a twin trunked plan that hardly qualified as bonsai.
The best photograph I finally found was on the Internet, which was found by searching for Carrisa grandiflora. There I found a delightful picture of one in flower. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~grnhouse/images/families/Apocynaceae.html The flowers are up to 2” and have five petals. (There’s even a variegated Natal Plum offered, it reportedly grows two-four feet tall and three to six feet wide.)
Yes, when given enough light these plants have a wonderful five petaled white flower that smells similar to a jasmine. Once one of my Natal Plums not only flowered, but it had a plum. Yes, they produce a purple-red fruit about 2 inches long, which is edible! According to Dunton’s book they can be cooked into a syrup with sugar and lemon juice that makes a great ice-cream topping.
This plant is originally from South Africa. I have seen it used as a hedge in Hawaii. It reportedly likes nighttime temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees, daytime temperatures of 68 or higher. One source stated that it will survive temperatures down to 35 degrees. Its leaves are very oval and dark green. The leaves are thick and the tips of the stems tend to be green. The plant does have thorns, but they are not as pronounced as a pyrocantha. This plant is a real sun lover. It needs at least 4 hours of sunlight a day (or equivalent artificial light) to flower. Sources say they can take full sun outdoors, though I found that this causes some of the leaves to develop a reddish cast. One author recommends that you keep this plant moist, another says water moderately. I find that it is tolerant. I have allowed mine to dry out, and yet this year all the rain merely made them grow more rapidly.
Given that this plant is a zone 9-10 tropical, it grows rapidly and may need to be pruned more than twice a year. When you take cuttings, they will root very easily. While new growth is greenish, the bark grays quickly and develops furrows. The new wood quite flexible, this allows you to style this plant into virtually any position. Three cautions; first, old wood can become brittle; second branches may die back especially if there are no leaves left when the tip is cut off; and third, since growth can be rapid, check your wiring often. Major pruning or styling should be done after flowering in mid to late spring.
The general care is reported to be like that for jasmine. I believe they are much easier. However this means that they do like humidity, and when you bring them indoors a humidity tray of gravel under them is recommended. As with all indoor plant arrangements, it is recommended that a fan be used to keep the air moving to prevent fungus. Also they like an acid ferttilizer, like Miracid”. I have also used African Violet food. Feeding during the summer should be at least every two weeks, reduced to monthly in the fall and winter.
All three of my books warn that Natal Plum does not like root pruning. Lesniewicz says that transplanting should only be done in the fall and winter. Another source said mid-spring to mid-summer is OK. As with other bonsai, use a rapid draining soil mixture to prevent root rot. If you decide that you need to add this plant to your bonsai collection, talk to your fellow members to see if they will give you a cutting. My largest Natal Plum came from a cutting that Linda cut from a plant at a Dawes workshop. I sold three new plants taken form my cuttings at the Affair of the Hort. I was surprised to find that prebonsai and bonsai ran from $11.95 to $48.95 plus shipping.