The 3 Wild Plums.

I have 3 Wild Plums in my garden. I moved in 25 years ago and they were here already. Now I have trouble with my neighbors because the garden wall is under pressure. The trees are close to the wall but not touching. I am digging down to the foundation to see if these trees are the sole culprets. The neighbors insist I remove them, but the thought is breaking my heart. If I can reduce the drip line circle and top the trees, will it encourage an agredsive spread of the roots or limit the spread? To what extent will one-sided 'pruning' destabilize these trees. I guess they are to close to the wall. But surely, there must be some affordable way to save the trees and secure the wall!? Any advice will be appreciated. Solette

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Dec 02, 2022
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I feel your pain
by: Caroline

Thank you for your heart felt letter Solette. It is so sad when there is this kind of conflict. I apologize for not getting back to you earlier, had a lot of tough deadlines and then family trouble !

I presume you refer to Harpephyllum caffrum, with the very sour red fruit and the large pip with silky coating (its related to the mango).

We have a lot of African plum as street trees where I live in Goodwood. The trees were planted long before I moved here 25 years ago, so may be a similar age to yours. They remain small. I never see anyone trimming them. They are growing surrounded by tar right up to their trunks, with no irrigation or compost or fertilization, and they fruit profusely.

However they do lift the tarmac and necessitate re-tarring of the pavement by the council, but not half as much as other street trees like Ficus and Brazillian pepper. I doubt whether they are terribly aggressive, but research before I planted them in my garden suggested planting them a good distance from walls as they are a tiny bit destructive. Mine are planted two meters from the walls.

Yours however are a fait accompli, as you explain.

It seems from the evidence of our street trees that they can be 'miniaturized'. Fully grown Harpephyllum is a tree with a massive umbrella in excess of 20 meters in diameter. I've seen one at Oude Molen, a very old specimen with a girth of at least three meters. So to prevent them from fulfilling their natural tendency to get this big they may need to be put under stress, like the street trees.

Most trees when cut back on top die off at the bottom rather than 'fighting back' by developing stronger roots. I hope this is the case with Harpephyllum. To preserve the trees you could cut a bit at a time, say removing 20 % and then leave it for a couple of months, then remove some more. You may try completely removing the top of one of them, to an easily prunable height but you may lose the tree.

To limit its thriving you could remove all compost from the base, and continue to remove nutrients by trimming the tree, and removing foliage under it. Remove all irrigation within the drip line of the canopy if possible.

I do not know the answers, I'm just surmising what would have the same stunting effect as our street trees experience. They do stunt because the other species of street trees I mentioned growing in the same conditions do not stunt, and are such a maintenance problem because of their vast size.

You say the neighbours see the wall as threatened... could it be replaced with a flexible organic wall, like a wooden fence or woven stick fence, or even a living wall, (they do this so beautifully with willow in England) or is it part of a building ?

There are also a number of fruit bearing African shrubs ideally suited to making hedges which I discussed in another article, see my Regenerative Gardening Blog, May 30th 2021 as one example.

Perhaps there is some produce which can be shared with the neighbours to sweeten them up to your cause... Harpephyllum may be a bit sour for that ! However the sourness is there because it does have the highest anti oxidant count of a range of about 12 berries that were tested a while ago. Three times that of blueberries which we pay such a fortune for in the hope of health benefits !

I once made a Harpephyllum wine which smelt exquisite. If there is any passion of your neighbours on which you can hang a Harpephyllum story, try it. Birding, watching butterflies, making jam, health problems due to inflammation and being proactive regarding climate change by locking down carbon in old growth trees are just some possibilities.

Good luck fellow tree lover.

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