Name: Illawarra plum, daalgaal, goongum, plum pine, brown pine (Podocarpus elatus).
Height: 8–12m in the garden, but up to 40m in its natural setting.
Plant type: evergreen tree.
Climate: warm temperate, sub-tropical, tropical.
Soil: moist and well drained, enriched with organic matter.
Position: full sun to part shade.
Foliage: narrow, glossy green and leathery with sharp tips.
Flowering and fruiting: cylindrical clusters of tiny white-green flowers can be found in the leaf axils from summer to early autumn. The Illawarra plum is a dioecious species, so flowers are unisex and borne on both male and female trees. The fruit is made up of a small, hard and inedible seed that sits on top of a fleshy, edible, plum-like stalk with purple-black skin, a waxy coating and pinky-red flesh. Harvest from March to July.
Feeding: feed in late winter and summer with an organic-based fertiliser.
Watering: water regularly to keep the soil moist. It is fairly drought tolerant once established, but prefers a regular watering, especially during summer.
The Illawarra plum is an attractive tree with a broad, spreading crown. Despite its common name, it is not a plum but a conifer, an ancient family of trees that typically produce woody seed cones. Unlike other conifers, the Illawarra plum does not have cones. Instead, it has single seeds attached to a fleshy, blue-black modified stalk or receptacle. This berry-like fruit is edible and the jelly-like flesh tastes of plum with hints of pine. It is rich in antioxidants, too.
Trees are either male or female, with fruit only forming on female trees. You will need one of each tree to produce fruit – planting a few of each will increase the chances of pollination and fruit set.
Illawarra plums are slow growing in the first couple of years but are fruit bearing after 3–5 years, and reach full size (8–12m tall and 4–7m wide) in 8–10 years. They are tolerant of a wide range of soil types, as long as it is well drained. Once established, they are moderately frost tolerant but young trees will need some protection.
The Illawarra plum grows into a magnificent tree. Use it as a specimen planting or shade tree, or prune into a fruiting hedge. The fruit is high in antioxidants and can be eaten raw or used to make jam, sauces, chutney, glazes, cakes, muffins and other sweet treats.
Choose a spot in full sun to part shade with well-drained soil. Enrich the soil with compost and well-aged manure and dig in well. Dig a hole twice as wide and to the same depth as the existing root ball. Remove the plant from its pot, loosen the roots and position in the centre of the hole. Backfill, firm the soil and water in well.
Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the plant to help conserve soil moisture and suppress weeds.
Regular watering and an occasional feeding will keep Illawarra plums happy and healthy. The trees are not known to be bothered by pests or diseases.
Water regularly until well established. Illawarra plums are fairly drought tolerant once established but prefer to be watered regularly, especially in summer.
Feed in spring and autumn with an organic, slow-release native fertiliser.
Female trees will start to bear fruit after 3–5 years. When ripe, fruit will fall off the tree – pick them up before the birds do! They can be harvested earlier on the tree, but need to be picked at the right time to ensure the flavour is right.
If grown as a tree, there is no need to prune. For hedges and screens, tip prune when young to encourage a bushy habit and trim annually to maintain size and shape.
Illawarra plums grow from seeds or cuttings. Sow seeds in trays filled with a seed raising mix, position in a warm spot and water regularly to keep the soil moist.
Cuttings are best taken in late winter. Use stems 5–10cm long, remove the lower leaves and dip the ends into a rooting hormone. Insert the cuttings into a pot or tray filled with propagating mix, place in a warm spot and water regularly to keep the soil moist.
After applying fertiliser, delay harvesting for a few days and rinse well before cooking and eating. If using products to deal with pests, diseases or weeds, always read the label, follow the instructions carefully and wear suitable protective equipment. Store all garden chemicals out of the reach of children and pets.
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Photo credit: tuckerbush.com.au