Quick! Which ridiculously handsome South African is wind-resistant, drought-tolerant, security-ready, eminently prunable, easy to grow, farmable, culturally significant, and downright delicious?
Answer: the plant with the tastiest name of them all – the num-num.
In fact, we have two species of num-num in South Africa: the smaller, twin-thorned, Cape version, Carissa bispinosa or forest num-num, and the larger, but – just to confuse us – also two-thorned Natal plum or amatungulu, Carissa macrocarpa.
Easy to tell which is which: the amatungulu (the one wearing the Sharks jersey) is the larger of the two. Everything about it is bigger: with glossy, leathery, quail’s-egg-sized, egg-shaped leaves, bright red, date-sized fruit, and thorns as long as your thumb, Carissa macrocarpa can mature into a dense shrub or even a small tree of up to four metres, while its smaller cousin, which tends to be a little more twiggy, has smaller leaves and berry-sized fruits. Both bear beautifully fragrant, jasmine-like, star-shaped, white flowers – although, of course, at an average of 35 millimetres across, the amatungulu’s are almost three times bigger than the tiny, delicate blooms of its little cousin.
Like all members of the Apocynaceae – the dogbane family – the leaves, fruit, and branches of both species of num-num carry a milky latex, which has a reputation for being poisonous. Fortunately for epicures, though – and kids across the continent – the fruits themselves aren’t toxic.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Om nom nom nom
Leaving aside the forest num-num for a moment – since both species will grow quite happily in almost all but the coldest parts of the country – it’s the amatungulu that seems to have attracted the special attention of foodies, and even researchers, who see it as a potential, and very nutritious, food crop. They’re higher in Vitamin C than citrus fruits, and they’re brimming with enough of the good stuff like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium to make a significant impact on your recommended daily allowances.
You can eat the berries straight off the plant – they’re sweetish-to-tartish – and you don’t have to worry about pips, since the seeds are soft and pretty insignificant. So slice them in half and add them to your salads and such – although if you want these little beauties to really sing, you need to you cook with them.
And there are so many ways to do that: squeeze them over fish or meat for added sweetness and flavour; use them in jams, jellies or chutneys (they’re rich in pectin, so they’re really useful when you’re making preserves); steep them as a flavouring in alcohol or cordials; and add them to your fruitcakes, brownies or muffins – although when you bake with them, you should probably slice and cook them lightly first, and then allow them to dry out a little before you add them to the mix.
One of our favourite ideas comes from foodwithastory.co.za:
Cook as a dessert with pears, add red wine and water, sweetening and whole spices (e.g. cinnamon, cloves and ginger), and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pears and reduce the liquid to a thicker syrup before serving with yogurt or cream.
Interestingly, the US government’s National Research Council’s three-volume Lost Crops of Africa (The National Academies Press, Washington, 2008) devotes no fewer than 11 pages to the num-num’s enormous commercial possibilities, comparing its commercial potential to that of the immensely profitable cranberry.
Gardener’s best friend
But we’re not talking about farming – we’re talking about gardening. For estate managers and home owners, both species have many great advantages besides the obvious appeal of their good looks and sweet fragrance.
Planted about a metre apart, num-nums can be grown as a hedge, and – since those thorns of theirs are really quite vicious – they can form part of the estate’s security system. They respond well to cutting back, but they should be pruned narrower at the top than at the base.
The plants are easy to maintain: they’re fairly drought-hardy, so they’ll do well in most water-wise gardens, and they’re happy to grow in full sun or semi-shade – the name forest num-num should be a clue here – and in most soil types, too: sandy, loamy, or even light clays.
Although num-nums tolerate coastal winds and even salt air, they’re not happy when it’s very cold, so it’s best to protect young plants if you’re in an area that experiences light frost – down to, say, five degrees below. Any colder than that, and your babies probably won’t survive.
Like us, the birds and the bees (well, butterflies) love to nom nom nom on the num-num, too – so it really is a winner in every way. And, once you have shown by example that they are safe to eat, it’s a really sneaky way for you to get your kids to self-administer a regular dose of vitamin C while they’re playing in the garden.
Carissa macrocarpa and Carissa bispinosa plants should be available at most nurseries and garden centres. For more information, search Carissa on pza.sanbi.org – the website that celebrates the plants of southern Africa.