Lazy forager, meet the Num num
A user's manual to the onomatopoeic landscape:
Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa) in Los Angeles
Among landscapes so lined with evergreen hedges, the ample red fruits of Carissa macrocarpa tempt those of us who have been taught to look, but not touch. But the fearless will be rewarded. 'Very edible indeed,' writes a University of Pretoria writer, who explains the plant's common name, 'num-num,' as an onomatopoeic term referring to the fruit's deliciousness.
For those needing more particulars, num num's taste can range from blandish sweet to sour to a juicy cross between strawberry and cranberry, depending on the cultivar, or stage of ripeness. But such fine-grained descriptions might seem needlessly fussy for describing a taste that is so simply just good. In my neighborhood, birds have figured out the fruit is at its best when dark red and slightly soft. In its native South Africa, num num are fully appreciated by loeries and bulbuls, as well as baboons, vervet monkeys, and humans.
Some among the latter species might be alarmed to see white milk leaking from the fruit's broken pink flesh. But unlike the latex of its famously poisonous cousins milkweed (Asclepias) and Oleander, the latex of num num fruits is innocuous . Even its skin and seeds can be swallowed.
In South Africa, num num grows along the coast from the eastern Cape to Mozambique, and is associated with coastal bush and vegetated sand dunes. The Cape region of South Africa is situated almost exactly opposite the globe from Los Angeles, which means num num's summer is our winter, and its winter is our summer. There, Amathungulu (Zulu and Xhosa), or grootnoem-noem (Afrikaans) flowers from winter to spring (July to November). Its fruits appear through spring and summer (September to January) and are sold by the roadside along coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal .
Of several local Carissa species, Carissa macrocarpa has the largest fruit (makros= large, carpos=fruit). High in pectin, Carissa is made into a widely appreciated jelly. Other culinary uses include curry, tarts, and puddings.
In South Africa, Carissa is also promoted for its drought tolerance and ornamental value. Hedges of thorny Carissa are security barriers that stop the passage of animals and humans. Wildlife lovers plant Carissa to provide birds a nesting haven safe from predators.
In urban Los Angeles, the numerous available cultivars of Carissa can masquerade as groundcovers, shrubs, or hedges. Num num can be distinguished from less delicious foundation plantings by its distinctive Y-shaped thorns. Its glossy leathery leaves, the size of dollar coins, are arranged exactly opposite from one another on a branch. Its fragrant five-petalled white flowers are bigger and muskier smelling than star jasmine and can be almost as big as Plumeria. Its fruits, up to the size of a plum, appear most prolifically from summer to fall but occasionally even into winter.
The Cape region of South Africa and much of California are among the five narrow slivers of land in the world that have Mediterranean climates: warm dry summers and cool wet winters. Many common species in Los Angeles landscapes originate from other Mediterranean regions. The Cape region of South Africa also happens to be one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, and numerous plants from the eastern Cape: African iris (Dietes), Society garlic (Tulbaghia), iceplant (Carpobrotus), bird of paradise (Strelitzia), and Agapanthus--are so ubiquitous in Los Angeles' public landscapes that they are mistaken by many residents to be California natives. Because garden conditions in Los Angeles are similar to Carissa's home in the Eastern Cape, num num bushes are very much at home here, and its ability to maintain glossy green foliage in the face of neglect, heat, and drought has earned Carissa its local status as a landscape workhorse.
At the same time, fans here and elsewhere have promoted the num num's greater gifts. Government researchers point out Carissa's potential to become an economic resource . Carissa even has an entry in the USDA National Nutrient Database, which reveals it to be high in Vitamin B, C, Iron, Potassium, Copper, and Magnesium. With respectable nutritional content and market-ready looks and taste, Carissa is poised to make a contribution to drylands food security and sustainable agriculture.
Carissa has eluded large-scale commercial production, even in its home country, because of sharp thorns that complicate harvesting, the fruit's vulnerability to bruising, and the fact that Carissa fruit do not all ripen at once. Instead, the fruits are harvested from cultivated landscapes: hedgerows and ornamental plantings .
In California and Florida at least twenty cultivars have been developed over the last century, some of which offer larger or more easily accessible fruit. These cultivars are not known in South Africa . At the same time, several native species of Carissa with greater drought tolerance (but smaller fruit) which are familiar to South Africans, are less common in American horticulture. As southern Californians consider food security in relation to limited water supplies, these species might become more widely appreciated.
On a recent journey to La Jolla, circumstances made it difficult for me to stop for lunch. Fortunately, the walk between my destinations was lined with hedges bearing the hugest num num fruits I had ever seen. They were not as tasty as the Carissa in my neighborhood, and the fruits I attempted to save in my pocket for later were quickly bruised into a formless mush. However, in the moment, I thanked the landscape and all those who created it, for providing such beautifully and conveniently placed snacks. Num num!
Financial support for this research was provided by the Dangermond Scholarship Fund at Cal Poly Pomona's Department of Landscape Architecture.
Eliovson, Siva. 1973. South African wildflowers for the Garden. Johannesburg, Macmillan.
Mabb, K. T. (2001). Researching Parrots in the Wilds of California’s Suburban Jungles. http://natureali.org/parrot_project/suburban_jungles.htm
National Research Council. (2008). Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits. Washington, D. C.: National Academies Press.
Phakamani, X., and Croeser, P. (2012). Traditionally useful plants of Africa- their cultivation and use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
South African National Biodiversity Institute. 2000. Plantzafrica.
University of Pretoria. (2014). Carissa macrocarpa.
Venter, F., and Venter, J. (2012). Making the most of Indigenous Trees. Pretoria: Briza.