Harpephyllum: The African Wild Plum

kaffir plum south african plum seeds harpephyllum caffrum
Harpephyllum is a small, oblong tropical fruit resembling miniature mangoes. The wild plum calls Africa home, growing in the wild for ages. It has a tart flavor neutralized by creamy notes of passion and mango when ripe, making it a delightful snack for wildlife and humans.

What is a Harpephyllum?

Harpephyllum (Harpephyllum caffrum) is an edible fruit in the family Anacardiaceae (the cashew and mango family).

This tiny, uniquely-flavored fruit is known by other common names, including South African wild plum (English); wildepruim, suurbessie, gwenjabessie (Afrikaans); umgwenya (Zulu, Xhosa); mothekele (Northern Sotho), and kaffir plum.

The fruit is about 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 cm) long, with a smooth, glossy surface. Its thin flesh is peach-orange, soft, and velvety like a mango’s. Harpephyllum has a distinct tart (but tasty) flavor, making it perfect for preparing fresh or fermented juices.

Harpephyllum grows in loose clusters on a large evergreen tree. This tropical plant is a famous ornamental and street tree in South Africa, thanks to its massive canopy of drooping leaves and scattered odd red leaves.

The History of Harpephyllum

As its English common name suggests, harpephyllum is native to South Africa. History has it that the fruit has grown wildly since ancient times in the southern African region extending to Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

In South Africa, harpephyllum trees are widely found in Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, and Limpopo. However, since the South African wild plum has grown wildly and is yet to be commercialized, it’s rare to find it in places outside its native regions.

However, it might have reached the USA via travelers or migrants from South Africa. So today, harpephyllum grows in Southern California and other regions in the USDA zones 9 to 11.

Harpephyllum fruits have been a food source for insects, birds, animals, and humans for ages, and the tree has medicinal value to indigenous South African communities. For instance, the bark was used in traditional medicine to relieve eczema and acne.

The bark was also burnt and crushed into powder and utilized to treat bone fractures and sprains. In addition, the roots made a decoction used in cleansing sorcery-related paralysis. It was believed that a person could be paralyzed by walking in poisoned or ‘polluted’ areas.

Harpephyllum caffrum terminal bunch unripe fruit
Harpephyllum ripens on the stem, falling off when fully ripened.

What Does a Harpephyllum Taste Like?

Harpephyllum has a slightly sour but sweet taste, similar to tart mango.

The tart flavor becomes milder when cooked, making the fruit ideal for jellies and jams.

How to Tell When Harpephyllum is Ripe

It’s pretty easy to tell that harpephyllum is ripe based on its visual characteristics. But you might have to compete with birds and animals like baboons to get your share if you wait for these tropical fruits to fall to the ground.

Here are some tips to help you know that harpephyllum is ripe and ready to eat:

ColorWhen ripe, the wild plum turns green to bright red. It’s this color that attracts animals to feed on the ripe fruits.
Texture/FirmnessRipe harpephyllum has a soft, velvety surface. The skin remains a bit firm but gives slightly when pressed.
Smoothness/RoughnessThe fruit should have a smooth surface when ripe. So, it could be underripe or spoilt if the skin is bumpy (uneven).

Are Harpephyllum and Regular Plums Related?

Although harpephyllum and regular plums share the name “plum,’ they belong to separate families, genera, and species.

Here are the similarities and differences between the two fruits:

  • Both are drupes or stone fruits, meaning that they have a single large seed (stone).
  • Both have smooth skin and a soft texture when ripe.
  • Harpephyllum belongs to the mango family (Anacardiaceae), while regular plums are in the rose family (Rosaceae).
  • Harpephyllum fruits are smaller than regular plums and oblong-shaped. On the other hand hand, plums can either be round or oval, depending on the variety.
  • Regular plums are juicier and tastier than harpephyllum fruits.
  • Regular plums are widely available since they’re commercialized fruits, while harpephyllum fruits are rare outside their native regions.

Can I Eat Raw Harpephyllum?

Yes, you can eat this fruit in its raw form.

Snacking it right from the tree is the best way to eat raw harpephyllum. However, you can also blend the fruit to prepare a lemonade-like fresh juice.

Cooking with Harpephyllum

Despite its few culinary applications, preparing harpephyllum for cooking is easy. Here are a few steps to help you do that:

  1. Wash the harpephyllum well, using water to remove dirt and debris.
  2. Remove the fruits from their stems by hand or using a fork.
  3. Cut individual fruits in half using a sharp knife.
  4. Remove the stone (seed).
  5. You can either peel off the skin or use the fruits with the skin (since it’s edible).

You can now use your harpephyllum fruits to make jams, jellies, or preserves. Although they taste slightly sour, these tiny fruits are tasty, and you don’t have to add sweetener. However, if you’re a sweet tooth, a bit of sugar in your jelly or jam will do no harm.

Alternatively, use blended harpephyllum to prepare a lemonade-like drink. You only need to combine the fruit with water and sugar. Also, you can ferment this drink for a couple of days to make rose wine.

How to Store Harpephyllum

Like plums, you can keep your ripe harpephyllum on your counter for a day or two.

However, you must store them in the fridge to extend their freshness for 5 to 7 days. In this case, place the harpephyllum in a sealable plastic bag, or wrap individual paper towels to dry any moisture. Then, store them in your refrigerator crisper drawer.

You can also chill the harpephyllum if you want to use them longer. To freeze the fruits, wash and dry them gently. Remove the seeds by slicing them in half, place them on a baking sheet, and freeze. Then, transfer the frozen fruit to a freezer-safe bag and chill them for up to 12 months.

Nutritional Benefits of Harpephyllum

Harpephyllum is a nutritious tropical fruit with various health benefits. These fruits are excellent sources of Vitamin C, dietary fiber, and several minerals, including calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, and copper.

They’re also low in calories and sugar, helping lower the body’s cholesterol levels.

The phytochemicals in harpephyllum fruits have been shown to boost immunity. For instance, Vitamin C, a vital antioxidant, fights free radicals that cause cell damage, leading to diseases.

recent study also shows that the antioxidant properties of harpephyllum can potentially prevent brain disorders (caused by oxidative stress) by enhancing glucose uptake.

The minerals in harpephyllum boost general health by improving the functions of various body organs like kidneys and the liver.

Where to Purchase Harpephyllum

Harpephyllum is rare, especially if you’re looking for fresh fruit. However, when the fruit is in season, you can purchase it online from specialty stores dealing with exotic fruits, such as TopTropicals. Harpephyllum ripens during summer and can are foraged through fall.


Catherine lives in an actual tropical paradise: Kenya. Her encounters with several exotic tropical fruits are more like an ordinary day-to-day eating experience. As a food writer, Catherine is always intrigued by how ingenious word spinning can create a taste and smell experience very close to what actual eating does. So she endeavors to build such an experience for her readers with every piece of content she writes.

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