Ebony: The African Persimmon

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By Matt Styslinger

Ebony wood is world renowned for its dense fine-grain quality and rich dark color. It is prized for use in musical instruments, like pianos and violins, and is considered superior for wood carving. But what is less well-known is that ebony trees also bear fruit. In fact, their genus name, Diospyros, means ‘divine fruit,’ and the persimmon comes from temperate species of ebony. The tropical species—including Africa’s most common, the jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis)—produce the finest ebony wood and a fruit akin to the persimmon. Although the, African ebony trees are endangered because of overharvesting, they could have substantial financial and food security benefits if cultivated more widely.

African ebony fruits are sweet and succulent (Photo credit: PlantzAfrica.com)

African ebony fruits are sweet and succulent. They range from lemon to apple-sized and are attractive looking, making them ideal for large-scale marketing. The fruits are commonly eaten fresh, dried, or pulped for sauces. They can be used in porridges and toffee, brewed into beer, fermented into wine, and distilled into an ebony brandy. In Namibia they are made into a hot liqueur called ombike.

Little detail is known about the nutritional value of ebony fruit, as it has not been thoroughly studied. The pulp likely has a substantial amount of vitamin C and other minerals. Horticultural selection along with scientific research could yield more nutritious and flavorful varieties of the fruit. Ebony fruits are soft and fragile. This delicacy is a limiting factor in developing the fruit into a commercialized crop. Research and meticulous selection could bring about hardier fruits, while better harvesting and transport methods tailored to the crop could support larger-scale production.

Despite the incredible value of its wood, ebony has rarely, if ever, been produced on plantations in Africa. This is most likely because the tree grows slowly, and the time between planting and wood harvesting would be too much of an investment for most. But fruit crops could be harvested in the years that trees are growing for timber, providing income and nutrition and paying for the maintenance costs of an ebony tree farm. In the long-term, the cultivated ebony timber would pay off in a big way. Ebony is so coveted by artists and craft makers that it sells by the gram.

Considered among the world’s finest, the black or dark-brown ebony wood can be polished to an incredibly shiny finish. Today, as raw ebony is now scarce, it is heavily regulated in many African countries. Often only master carvers are given permission to use the wood, though limited exports are sometimes allowed. It has long been used as building posts because of its resistance to water and termites. It is also traditionally used for tool handles, mortar and pestles, and canoes. It was once common for firewood and charcoal, but it is far too valuable and rare in the modern world for that purpose.

The bark of some ebony species is boiled to make a dark blue dye for cloth. The injured bark of a live tree secretes a gum that is useful as a glue. The roots of the jackalberry tree are made into a mixture for treating dysentery and fever and getting rid of parasites. The mixture has also been used to help treat leprosy in Southern Africa.

In addition, ebony trees could be planted as central village trees, along streets, highways, and fence lines, and in village-owned plots for food and timber reserves. The leaves make an excellent fodder for livestock. And because the leaves are naturally eaten by elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and elands and the fruits are eaten by kudus, warthogs, baboons, and vervet monkeys, they can support wildlife populations.

Ebonies can also protect African communities from famine. The tree’s deep roots keep its leaves green during drought, which can be emergency fodder for grazing livestock when grasses dry up. And the fruits—which grow in abundance on each tree—are often dried and stored as reserve food. Dried ebony fruit is delicious and sometimes preferred over the fresh version.

Ebonies occur all over sub-Saharan African in both dry and humid areas. The varieties in humid climates, however, seem to produce the highest quality fruits and wood. The natural varieties are versatile, and selection, propagation, and cross-breeding could produce ideal crop varieties for various climates across the continent. This could be especially useful in regions experiencing environmental stress from climate change. Horticulturalists from Asia and Europe with expertise on persimmons could offer valuable assistance in the development of a successful ebony fruit crop.

To read more about crops indigenous to Africa see: Safou: the “Butterfruit”, Reigniting an Interest in Local food, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change, Monkey Oranges: Mouthwatering Potential, The Green Gold of Africa, Fonio: Africa’s Oldest Cereal Needs More Attention, The Locust Bean: An Answer to Africa’s Greatest Needs in One Tree, and Lablab: The Bountiful, Beautiful Legume, Moringa: The Giving Tree, Black-eyed Peas to the Rescue.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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