© Geoff Nichols
This is an attractive evergreen tree that is useful as an ornamental
garden tree and for attracting birds and butterflies into the garden.
It is popularly planted as a street tree in a number of South African
towns and cities. With its thick crown and somewhat drooping leaves,
the wild plum is a good shade tree in the garden.
The wild plum is a large, evergreen tree that grows up to 15 m tall,
and is usually found in riverine forests. The main stem is clean
and straight, but the forest form often has supporting buttress
roots. The bark is smooth when young, becoming rough, dark grey-brown
as it grows older. Branches are curved bowed upwards, with leaves
crowded towards the ends, forming a thick crown at the top of the
The shiny dark green and glossy leaves are pinnate with sickle-shaped
leaflets, and are sometimes interspersed with the odd red leaves.
The whitish green flowers are borne near the ends of the branches
with male and female flowers on separate trees, throughout summer
(November to February). The tasty plum-like fruits first appear
green and then turn red when they ripen in autumn; they contain
a single seed and are enjoyed by people, mammals and birds.
The wild plum may be confused with the Cape ash (Ekebergia capensis)
but is distinguishable by its sickle-shaped leaflets and the leaves
that are crowded towards the end of the branches.
The Harpephyllum caffrum grows from the Eastern Cape northwards
through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, southern Mozambique, Limpopo and
into Zimbabwe. This is a popular tree in frost-free areas.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Harpephyllum is of Greek derivation, meaning
sickle-like leaves, referring to the shape of the falcate leaflets.
The specific name caffrum is derived from its place of origin, Kaffraria,
now part of Eastern Cape. This word also means 'indigenous'.
H. caffrum belongs to the Anacardiaceae (mango family), which
is the fourth largest tree family in southern Africa, boasting approximately
80 tree species and many shrubs. Commercially grown members of the
family include mango (Mangifera indica), cashew nut (Anacardium
occidentale), and pistachio nut (Pistacia vera). Locally,
the fruit of wild plum and marula (Sclerocarya birrea) are well
utilized and the latter is well commercialized. Some species that
belong to this family are considered to be toxic, for example the
rainbow leaf (Smodingium argutum).
Uses and cultural aspects
The fruit of H. caffrum is widely utilized by birds, animals,
insects and humans. They are commonly used for making jams and jellies.
With their sour taste, they are also good to make rosé wine.
The tree has some potential as a commercial crop, but a preliminary
trial planting in the Negev Desert in Israel was reported as disappointing.
The bark is a popular traditional medicine. It is used to treat
acne and eczema, and is usually applied in the form of facial saunas
and skin washes. It is used by people with 'bad blood' that results
in pimples on the face. Powdered burnt bark is used to treat sprains
and bone fractures. Bark is also used for dyeing, and it gives a
mauve or pink colour. In some parts of Eastern Cape, root decoctions
are traditionally taken for paralysis thought to have been contracted
from walking over an area that has been poisoned or polluted through
The wood of the H. caffrum is pale reddish and fairly heavy.
It polishes well but is not very durable. It has been used as a
general purpose timber, for furniture and beams. It is also used
for carving curios.
Larvae of the common hairtail butterfly (Anthene definite)
and the Eggar moth (Lasiocampa kollikerii) feed on leaves
of this tree. Many animals including bushbabies, monkeys, baboons
and bushbuck love the fruit of the wild plum. Birds such as Cape
parrots, mousebirds, barbets, bulbuls, louries and African green
pigeons and other fruit-eating birds feed on the fruits of this
© Geoff Nichols
Growing Harpephyllum caffrum
H. caffrum grows easily from seeds. Stored
seeds should be soaked in water for a day and then be scrubbed with
a brush to remove the fleshy part. It must then be sown in trays
filled with river sand or a normal potting soil. They should not
be planted too deep as they can easily rot. The seeds take 7 to
11 days to germinate.
The wild plum can also be propagated by means of cuttings and truncheons.
The truncheons should be dried before planting; they can be left
lying in the shade for a day or until all exudate has dried. The
hole in which the truncheon is going to be planted should be filled
with a layer of river sand to promote root formation and improve
drainage. This also helps to combat fungal diseases.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of
southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- Grant, R. & Thomas, V. 1998. Sappi tree spotting, KwaZulu-Natal
Coast and Midlands. Jacana, Johannesburg.
- Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. & Cunnigham, A., 1996.
Zulu medicinal plants:an inventory. University of Natal
- Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees
and srubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park. Jacana,
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. A
guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications,
- Van Wyk, B-E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal
plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Venter, F. & Venter, J-A. 1996. Making the most of indigenous
trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Mhlonishwa D. Dlamini
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden