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Diospyros Whyteana by Rudi Adam

by Rudi Adam

The small tree with the many names, amongst others - black bark, swartbos African bladder nut, Cape blackwood, Hottentots' cherry, wild coffee, bostolbos, braaibessie, etc. Native names abound - Umkhaza, Umtemutane, Intsomsimune, Umtimutane and Mwanda.

The black-bark is a widespread species, extending from Table Mountain in the south to Ethiopia in the North. In South Africa it grows in all the provinces from sea level to an altitude of 1800 metres in the Cape from the Cape Peninsula eastwards - in the eastern Orange Free State, in Natal and Zululand and in the Transvaal where it is fairly common. It also occurs in Swaziland. It grows in most of the mountain forests of the country and in shady kloofs, scrub and stream banks and often on mountain and hill slopes where it germinates in the crevices of almost solid rock. It most frequently grows in the deep shade of other trees.

Although most often a dense shrub or small tree, it can reach 15 m. in height. It is evergreen with spreading branches and usually a single trunk up to 30 cm. in diameter with a smooth and usually dark bark which gives the tree its most common name - Swartbos. The leaves are alternate and are shortly stalked. They are deep green, hairy and the margins often outlined in finest blond hairs which do not detract from the gloss at all.

The flowers are creamy yellow, flask-shaped, sweet scented and pendulous. Male and female flowers occur on different trees. The fruits are roundish berries up to 2 cm in diameter, fleshy, bright scarlet when ripe and fairly smooth, containing one or several oblong shiny, yellow seeds. When mature, they are completely enclosed in a papery, somewhat five-sided casket. The pulp around the seeds has a bitter-sweet taste.

The tree has, or had some interesting uses. The seeds were once used as a substitute for coffee, hence the common name, "wild coffee". It is also used medicinally and Africans in certain parts make an enema from it to treat impotency and barrenness.

The wood is handsome when polished, is fairly heavy, hard and strong and was once used for furniture, tools, spokes and wagons. It is still used to make pick handles.

This excellent little garden tree was very popular some 300 years ago in Europe. It has been re-discovered now as an excellent tree for bonsai culture since it is small, compact, ornamental, hardy, evergreen, undemanding as to soil, thrives in shade or in full sun and stands clipping very well. It is easily wired and bent while young, but tends to set very hard once it reaches a diameter of about 1/2 inch.

Pests: Young shoots and leaves get attacked by caterpillars and stinkbugs. It is also prone to "black spot." Wounds do not heal over well, so care must be taken to clean up cuts and wounds carefully. It appears to have two growing periods like most indigenous evergreens in the Cape, one being in spring, the other as soon as the first winter rains start. However, once in a pot with regular watering, it seems to grow throughout the warmer period.

I consider it one of the best indigenous plants for use in bonsai.

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Haiku

On the weathered shelf

A self-cleaned cat in autumn

Curls around itself.

Random Bonsai Tip

If surface roots are unequally spread around the trunk or if they are lacking completely you can drill holes and insert match sticks or make deep scars around the base of the trunk on the side where the roots are needed below soil level. Apply hormone powder and sphagnum moss; cover with plastic and keep moist. Leave for 6 months to 1 year for the roots to develop.