Diospyros Whyteana by Lionel Theron

by Lionel Theron of Bishopsford Bonsai Nursery

Family: Ebenaceae

There are 22 species indigenous to Southern Africa described in 'Trees of Southern Africa'. In addition there are others from other countries. The ones we are most familiar with are :

DlOSPYROS WHYTEANA (Bladder-nut, Blackbark, wild coffee,Swartbas, Bostolbos)

Native habitat:

South Africa

Description :

Large evergreen shrub or small tree up to 7m tall and found all along the southern and eastern coastal regions and in the Lowveld incl~ding the Kruger National Park. It has a neat compact growth habit and makes a good garden tree even for small gardens.

Bark :

Snooth, grey to almost black.

Trunk and branches:

Trunks and branches often develop very interesting' changes in direction of growth and can easily be trained by both directional pruning techniques and by wiring. The wood from which the bark has been removed turns black and reveals characteristics which are an inspiration to any creative bonsai grower. Scars (shari, jin and sabamiki) become exemplary features in a bonsai.

Roots :

Bladdernut often develop strong surface root structures which add to the feel of stability, permanence and age in the bonsai.

Leaves :

Alternate, elliptical to ovate-oblong, 2,5 - 4,5 cm by 1 -2 cm, dark green strikingly glossy above, pale dull green with sparse hairs beneath. The leaf margins may be wavy with a hairy fringe .


The cream flowers are borne on hairy stalks, are 5-10 mm long and are fragrant. They are borne in axillary sprays and are pendulously drooping.


The persistent sepals of the flowers become large, joined, inflated and bladderlike enclosing the almost spherical red fruit which is about 1,5 cm long. The fruit contains two seeds which resemble coffee beans.

Propagation :

The seeds germinate very readily when fresh. Soft wood cuttings taken in spring have also successfully rooted in coarse river sand. These trees grow rapidly when young and transplant readily during the correct transplanting season which is from August to October.


We have seen diospyros in upright, slanting trunk, clumps and forests, all as excellent bonsai. Despite the fairly large leaves most of the trees displayed good visual proportions and aesthetic merit.

Environmental conditions :

Our trees seem to enjoy soils rich in humus and respond well to regular feeding with balanced fertilisers which contain micro and macro elements. They will tolerate relatively poor drainage and reasonably shady conditions. They do not like very dry soil conditions and will probably not tolerate temperatures below 3 degrees Celsius. They tolerate low humidity but do better when the air is relatively moist.

Pests and diseases :

The pests which have occurred on our trees have usually been on the soft new leaves. The pests and relative treatments are listed below :

  • Caterpillars: spray with Folithion
  • Snout beetles : handpicking is the most successful control. Carbaspray is recommended.
  • Mites : spray with Folithion or Kelthane.
  • We have seldom seen any fungus infections. Benlate may be used if required.

Sometimes die back on small branches occurs, this may be due to infestations of the small sucking mites which have gone unnoticed or to insufficient fertilising which has caused the bonsai to be unable to manufacture enough carbohydrates resulting in the demise of branchlets.

DlOSPYROS LYCIODES (Bluebush, Bloubos)

This is the only other indigenous diospyros with which we are familiar but there may possibly be many others which warrant investigation as bonsai.

D. lycioides is a large shrub or small tree growing up to 5 m and is very widespread throughout South Africa but not common in the Cape Peninsula.

Bark :

The bark is smooth and dark grey, otherwise has no special features.

Leaves :

The leaves are dull pale or greyish green, about 1,5 - 8 cm by 0,5 - 3 cm and leatherish. The young leaves have silky hairs which may persist into adult forms.


The flowers are pendulous, creamy white and scented.

Fruit :

The fruit is striking, ovoid up to 2 cm long and ripen to an attractive red. The fruit persist until the next flowering season. We have seen some excellent examples as bonsai.


There are many of these trees from various parts of the world and the most well known is probably the common persimmon which is an edible fruit which is grown commercially. The fruit is large and looks very much like a tomato, with the same skin colour and texture. Anyone who has tried to eat this fruit when it is not fully ripe will remember it well as at that stage it creates a very unpleasant sensation to the inside of the mouth, they should be eaten when very or even over ripe. My own memories from childhood are far more pleasant than the fruit actually tastes. They are seen in local stores usually imported from Israel, although they can easily be grown locally.

The wild persimmon of Asia (D.kaki) is the parent of numerous cultivars. There is one called 'Yamagaki' which also bears the name 'saru-nakase' which means "to make a monkey cry", alluding to the fruit's astringency.

There are many fine photographic examples in bonsai books and calendars.


  1. Trees of Southern Africa by Keith Coates Palgrave.
  2. Four Seasons of Bonsai by Kyuzo Murata.

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Pools in the rocks

Softly tinted russet red and brown

Autumn is near

Random Bonsai Tip

Straightening training wire - For those who don't know and for those who have forgotten - to straighten training wire that has been removed from a tree, grasp each end of the wire with a pair of pliers and jerk apart. Alternatively, grasping one end of the wire in a vice, and the other with pliers is much more effective as then it is possible to rub the shaft of a screwdriver up and down the wire getting rid of the small bumps.