Ximenia caffra


Common names:
large sourplum (Eng.); grootsuurpruim (Afr.); umThunduluka-obmvu (Zulu); Morokologa (Northern Sotho)
Ximenia caffra.Photo:G Nichols
© 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.

Natural destribution
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.

 X. caffra Photo: Geoff Nichols

Name derivation
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 for infertility.

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 Publications, Pretoria.
  • 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.


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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com