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Diospyros Whyteana

by Isabel Hofmeyr

Diospyros together with Euclea (ghwarri) are the only two members of the ebony family found in Southern Africa. The name Diospyros is derived from theos (Gr) which means god and pyrum (L) which means pear, thus 'heavenly pear' alluding to the fruit of some exotic species of diospyros especially Diospyros kaki or the persimmon. The fruit of the 15 species occurring in the RSA are more berry-like, sometimes called jackallberries or star-apples.

diospyrosSome of these specimens like D. lycioides subsp. lycioides or the Karroo Bluebush are scattered over most of South Africa and Namibia while others are much more localised. Our subject D. whyteana is found from Cape Town in a strip along the East coast and deeper inland throughout the old Transvaal. A recognised common name is Blackbark because of the colour of the bark, especially when wet (Afrikaans: Swartbas or Bostolbos). The name Swartbas was first recorded by Thunberg in 1772-73. (One sometimes hears D. whyteana called Wild coffee, but that refers to a completely different tree Oxyanthus speciosus subsp. gerrardii).

In nature the Blackbark is a shrub or small tree, 5 - 7m tall, occurring in scrub and forest, on mountain slopes and in rocky places. The bark is grey to almost black. The leaves are narrowly elliptic, alternate, dark green and strikingly glossy above, paler dull green with sparse hairs below. The margin is entire and rather wavy. The fragrant white, cream to pale-yellow flowers, 5-10mm long, are pendulous and occur on hairy stalks in short axillary sprays which later develop into leafy twigs. The fruit are distinctive: ovoid to roughly spherical in shape, 1-1.5cm long, red when mature. The fruit are encased in the much enlarged bladdery, more or less 5-angled, calyx when mature. Seeds germinate readily and plants grow quite rapidly. The sexes are separate on different trees, occasionally apparently bisexual but functionally male. The wood is hard and tough and was used for wagon work as well as for furniture and tools.

This species was once much cultivated in Holland about 1690 as well as in other European gardens. About 1700 the Dutch introduced the species to the islands of St. Helena where it is still found.

As a subject for bonsai the Blackbark is highly desirable and can be used in most styles except root-over-rock and windswept, but excelling in clump and forest styles. It can be grown from seed or cuttings, but when luck brings along a Kirstenbosch hedge to be taken out one gains several years' trunk girth! A mature tree, taken from open ground after the first rains in the Cape, can be severely root-pruned and will sprout from all over the trunk within a short time.

It should be potted in the normal potting mix for your area and kept in a semi shady to shady place. Normal repotting is done during September/October combined with drastic pruning if required. Trimming back to one or two leaves should be done regularly. Be careful when wiring due to the thin bark. Keep an eye on the apex as it is inclined to thicken quickly. Remove fruit to prevent weakening of the tree. Daily watering in summer and as necessary in winter. Monthly fertilizing with Nitrosol is required and 3-1-5 should be given before the flowering stage. These trees are relatively pest free. Folithion and Bexadust may be used for caterpillars.

Bibliography:

Palgrave, Keith C. Trees of Southem Africa. 1977, p.743, 753-54

Smith, C A. Common Names of South African Plants. 1966, p.449

Von Breitenbach, F. National list of indigenous Trees. 1986, p.160-61

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Random Bonsai Tip

Wick watering - Support your tree or pot over a container of water. Place one end of a piece of rope (approx 20 cm long and one centimeter diameter) in the container and bury the other end in the pot of soil - you can now go away on holiday.