Hog Plum

Ximenia americana

Hog plum

Hog plum, photographed at Highland Scrub Natural Area, Deerfield Beach, Broward County, in July 2016.

This cosmopolitan guy is known by dozens of names in perhaps dozens of languages throughout its natural range, which includes a good chunk of the globe. Scientists call it Ximenia americana. We call it hog plum, which seems to be as good a name as any.

Regardless of the name, it's a pretty important plant where ever it's found, both for humans and animals.

Hog plum is a Florida native, and a common one, found throughout the Peninsula and into the Keys. It's native to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, South America and parts of Africa. At least one source says it's native to parts of Asia and the Pacific.

Here in Florida, it's a shrub that reaches perhaps a dozen feet tall, usually shorter from what we've seen, but it can hit 35 feet under the right conditions. It's found in scrubs, coastal dunes and other dry places. It's multi-stemmed and thorny. In spring, it produces small yellow and white flowers that are quite fragrant. One strange feature of the plant: it can be semi-parasitic. Hog plum roots have appendages called haustoria that can tap into roots of its neighbors to steal a nutrient or two, but otherwise do no harm to the victim, er, host.

But the most prominent feature of hog plum is its fruit: bright yellow, ping-pong-ball-sized and waxy. The fruit also can be red, especially when it falls off the tree. It is edible raw or cooked, but according to our favorite Florida forager, hog plum can range in flavor from bitter to sweet. It's been used to make jams, jellies and juices. In South Africa, it's used to make beer. It is also an important food for birds and other wildlife.

The seeds do contain cyanide, so it's not a good idea to chew them (I'm guessing if they're swallowed whole, they pass through the body without causing any problems. And hog plum isn't alone in this regard. The seeds of many fruits we consume, including apples and cherries, contain cyanide). But that doesn't mean that the seeds aren't useful. Besides cyanide (technically a chemical called amygdalin that the body converts to cyanide), they also contain an oil that's rich in polyunsaturated fats, particularly ximenynic acid. It's not suitable for cooking, apparently, but it is useful in making soaps, shampoos and as massaging oil that's said to increase blood flow to the skin and stimulate production of the skin's natural moisturizers. The Seminoles used it as a body rub; it's been used in traditional medicine to treat various skin conditions. The oil is commercially available for cosmetic uses, but it's extremely expensive stuff.

The fruit and seeds aren't the only useful parts of the plant. The leaves are edible cooked (they also contain cyanide) and are used to treat a long list of conditions that include toothaches and headaches. The roots are used to treat leprosy and guinea worm (a truly horrible disease) and hemorrhoids. The bark is used to treat skin ulcers, fevers and kidney and heart problems. But wait! There's more! Both the bark and the roots are used to tan leathers. The bark is used in dye-making, and the wood to make charcoal. Here in South Florida, hog plum is used in landscaping.

In years past, Hog plum was classified a member of Olacaceae, a family of tropical, woody, flowering plants. However, based on molecular research conducted earlier this century, Olacaceae was reconfigured and its members placed in seven different families. Taxonomists placed hog plum in Ximeniaceae, a small family (13 members worldwide) of root-parasite plants. It is the only member of the family found in Florida.

Other common names: tallow wood, tallow-wood, tallow plum, sea lemon, yellow plum, wild plum, seaside plum, wild olive, tallow nut, sour plum, small sour plum and a heck of a lot more.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.