Natural La Jolla: Thorny Natal plums make excellent fences

The Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) is a widespread and popular landscaping plant, named for the southeastern province in South Africa where it originates, now called KwaZulu Natal.

In some places, Carissa plants are also called num-nums, in reference to the delicious fruit. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous with a milky sap (a natural plant latex), once the fruits have ripened to bright red and purple, they are edible. Natal plums can be eaten raw or cooked. The plums are very soft and fragile, and are readily made into juice or jelly. Because Carissa is a hardy plant and blooms all year, fruits are available nearly year round in San Diego, with bumper crops produced in early fall. Carissa has an interesting flavor, mild with a strawberry/ cranberry taste.

The plant itself is a bright green shrub with waxy leaves. It is fairly salt tolerant, and grows well near the shore. It’s also an excellent drought tolerant plant. Delicate white flowers are sprinkled throughout for most of the year and the blooms are fragrant, smelling like a lighter version of gardenia.

However, it’s not as easy as it looks to pick the fruit. Paired woody thorns are wickedly camouflaged and very spiky, making it difficult to get the fruit without becoming impaled. When planted on a property line, Carissa can be just as good as a fence!