© Geoff Nichols
The large sourplum is a small tree or shrub with many traditional
uses and colourful fruit. It is suited to growing in a bush clump
or as part of a boundary screen in the garden to attract fruit-eating
birds and various butterflies.
Ximenia caffra is a deciduous tree up to 6 m tall with an
untidy open crown. The bark is dark grey and rough, but pale green
or brown on younger branches. Branchlets are spine-tipped. Sapwood
is white and heartwood is hard and reddish brown. The root system
is non aggressive.
The leathery, dark green leaves are often in clusters (fascicles)
on short spur branchlets. They are simple, 60 x 25 mm. Ximenia
caffra var. caffra has dense reddish hairs on the leaves
and branchlets, whereas var. natalensis has smooth leaves.
The flowers are small, sweet-scented and creamy green and borne
from August to October in single stem clusters in the axils of the
spines or on the dwarf branchlets. They are followed by thinly fleshy,
oval, attractive fruits (drupes) which are 25 mm long, glossy deep
red with white spots. These are tart, but edible and are relished
by birds, animals and humans. The single large seed inside contains
Ximenia oil which has various uses.
The tree is found in woodlands and grasslands and on rocky outcrops
and sometimes on termites mounds. It occurs from Tanzania in the
north to KwaZulu-Natal in the south. In South Africa the two varieties
have a different distribution pattern with var. caffra occurring
in the northern and central regions of Limpopo and var. natalensis
is found further east and south in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.
Ximenia is named after a Spanish monk. Francisco Ximenez
who wrote about the plants of Mexico in the 17th century. The genus
Ximenia also occurs in America and the type species of the
genus, X. americana, is the only other species that occurs
in southern Africa. The species name caffra refers to Kaffraria,
an old name for a part of the Eastern Cape.
Ripe fruits are eaten by birds such as barbets, bulbuls and
starlings. The leaves are eaten by animals including giraffe, impala,
kudu, grey duiker, steenbok, bushbuck and eland. The larvae of various
butterflies including the Natal bar, Silvery bar, Bowker's sapphire,
Saffron sapphire, Brown playboy and Bush scarlet butterfly feed
on the leaves.
Uses and cultural aspects
Ripe fruit has a vitamin C content of 27%, is high in potassium
and contains protein. The seed has a 65% oil content. Fruits have
a refreshing sour taste, best eaten when slightly overripe, but
can also be used for making jam, dessert and jelly. They can be
added to porridge. Oil from the seed is used to soften human skins
and for softening animal hides. It is also used for lamps. The nuts
are also eaten.
A decoction from the leaves is used as a wash to soothe inflamed
eyes. Infusions of the roots are used as a remedy for dysentery
and diarrhoea and together with the leaves are taken for abdominal
pain and bilharziasis. Powdered roots are applied to sores to speed
up healing; used in soup, and in beer as an aphrodisiac. Powdered
dried leaves are taken orally for fever and infertility, and extracts
of the leaves are used as a gargle for tonsillitis, and as a vermifuge.
Porridge is made using a decoction of the roots, and eaten once
a day for nausea in pregnancy; the root decoction is also taken
Growing Ximenia caffra
It is easily cultivated from fresh seed with a mixture of river
sand and compost (5:1). The seeds germinate after 14-30 days and
transplanting should take place when the seedlings reach the two-leaf
stage. This plant is partly parasitic, and will grow better once
in the ground where it can make contact with other plant roots.
The growth rate is moderate, up to 0.5 m per year, it can withstand
moderate frost and it is drought resistant, but needs full sun.
References and further reading
- Coates Palgrave, K. 1983. Trees of southern Africa, edn
2. Struik, Cape Town.
- Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of
southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa.
Balkema, Cape Town.
- Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. Briza
- 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.
Joseph K. Baloyi and Yvonne Reynolds
Pretoria National Botanical Garden