Ximenia americana var. microphylla
Ximenia americana L. var. microphylla Welw. ex Oliv.
Common names: small blue sourplum (Eng.); kleinblousuurpruim (Afr.); ukolotshane, umtunduluka-omncane, umkholotshwana (Zul.);umtfundvuluka, umthunduluka (Swa.); ntsengele (Tso.); morotologana (Tsw.); morotologa, motshidi, hwele, mosidi-wa-serotologane (N.So.); mutanzwa (Ven.) holotshani (Nde.)
SA Tree No: 102
A spiny shrub of African savannas that bears brightly coloured, edible fruits, and has a long history of medicinal value for traditional healers and western culture.
Ximenia americana var. microphylla is a much-branched, spreading, spiny shrub or, less often, scrambling, or a small tree, up to 6 m in its natural habitat. Branches normally arching downwards, often armed with straight spines. Leaves are simple, alternate or clustered on spur shoots, with rounded and slightly notched tips, with a broadly tapering base or rounded and occasionally softly haired, bluish grey-green. In spring it produces small, greenish white, fragrant flowers, borne on short shoots.
It produces oval, shiny, light green fruits that grow up to 30 mm long, and turn yellow, orange or red when ripe. The fruit contains one large endospermic seed within its green pulp, containing a small embryo with a thin testa.
It is a facultative hemi-parasite, which is the ability to live on the roots of available host species, but it can live independent of a host. It can also attach to non-living objects like rock or plastic, otherwise known as auto-parasite.
This species is similar to Ximenia caffra, the sour plum, but can be distinguished by its smaller leaves and fruits, and the inflorescence is usually branched and bears several flowers, whereas in X. caffra, flowers are borne singly or in tufts.
Ximenia americana var. microphylla is categorized as Least Concern (LC) on the Red List of South African plants. This species was automatically given Least Concern status because it has not yet undergone screening or been highlighted as a potential taxon of conservation concern. This status may change considering its medicinal value.
Distribution and habitat
Ximenia americana is known to naturally occur in tropical America, Asia and Africa, covering the northern and eastern parts of South Africa, as well as the southern and western parts of Africa. Summer temperatures are moderate to warm in this region, with very little to no frost in winter. These are summer-rainfall regions, with averages from 750 to 1 250 mm of rain per annum, depending on localities. This species is distributed in the Savanna Biome.
The variety microphylla occurs in South Africa, in the Provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Limpopo and North West, and in Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Ximenia americana is one of the 6 species of the genus Ximenia, a genus of shrubs and trees in the dicotyledonous family Olacaceae. Ximenia is named in honour of the Spanish priest and missionary, Francisco Ximenez (d. 1725), who wrote about the Mexican plants in the 17th century. The species name means ‘of America’ where it was first collected, and the variety name microphylla means ‘small leaves’ and distinguishes this variety.
Ximenia has a long history of traditional use, particularly in South Africa and Namibia, although also in other parts of the continent. Because of its multiple uses, Ximenia was included in 2001 in the ‘pipeline’ list of priority species to be promoted by the Indigenous Fruit Task Team (later to become the Indigenous Plant Task Team – IPTT).
The habitat of Ximenia americana var. microphylla is savanna; it is an essential source of food for various species in the savanna, including some of the mammals, like giraffe, who feed on leaves of this small tree. The brightly coloured drupe fruit is prolific in early summer, attracting birds, like barbets, bulbuls and starlings. The larvae of various butterflies feed on leaves of this shrub.
This plant is of economic importance, having both nutritional and medicinal value. The leaves can be dried and crushed to make powder to break fever. They are also used as a substitute for spinach and eaten by animals such as giraffe. An infusion made from the root is used as remedy for diarrhoea and abdominal pain, mental illness, fever and bilharzia. The fruits are eaten raw and seeds are crushed for extraction of the oil, which is edible and is also mixed with red ochre for cosmetic use on skin and hair. Roasted and pounded seeds are used for wounds.
Growing Ximenia americana var. microphylla
Ximenia americana is easily cultivated from fresh seeds using a 5:1 ratio of sand and compost. Germination will be observed approximately 14–30 days after sowing. Once the seedling has produced second-phase of leaves, it is ready for transplanting. This plant is semi-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 is drought resistant, requires full sun, and it can withstand moderate frost.
- Boon, R. 2010. Pooley's trees of eastern South Africa, a complete guide. Flora & Fauna Publications Trust, Durban.
- Fatope, M.O., Adoum, O.A. & Takeda, Y. 2000. Oleanene palmitate from Ximenia americana. Pharmaceutical Biology, 38(5): 391–393. DOI: 10.1076/phbi.38.5.391.5972.
- Foden, W. & Potter, L. 2005. Ximenia americana L. var. microphylla Welw. ex Oliv. National Assessment: Red List of South African plants version 2020.1. Accessed on 2020/06/15.
- Le, N.H.T., Malterud, K.E., Diallo, D., Paulsen, B.S., Nergard, C.S. & Wangensteen, H. 2012. Bioactive polyphenols in Ximenia americana and the traditional use among Malian healers. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 139(3): 858–862.
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa . Balkema, Cape Town.
- Van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants, a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa , edn 2. Livingstone, Edinburgh & London.
KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgments: photos by Geoff Nichols
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
SA Distribution: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: Green, White
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy