Plant 381

Diospyros species (Ebenaceae)


Diospyros is a large, pantropical genus of several hundred species, most of which are evergreen trees and shrubs; a few temperate species are deciduous. The genus is best known for its edible fruits and black wood.

The name Diospyros has a Greek origin which translates as ‘divine wheat’, akin to meaning ‘fruit of the gods’. Edible fruits of Diospyros species have a rather fibrous texture but are full of vitamins and minerals. When unripe they are very astringent because of their tannin content. The date-plum (Diospyros lotus), a species native to south-eastern Europe and south west Asia, has small, yellow or purplish-black fruits which become edible when soft. The Oriental persimmon (Diospyros kaki) has been widely cultivated in China and Japan for centuries. This species, with separate male and female individuals, has flowers that are small, four lobed and bell shaped. The calyx lobes, which are often star-shaped, persist and enlarge as the fruits mature into large, globular berries. The Sharon fruit of supermarket shelves is a persimmon cultivar grown in Israel’s Plain of Sharon. Diospyros virginiana, a native of the south-eastern United States, yields American persimmon fruits. The African species Diospyros mespiliformis produces edible jackalberry fruits, although different parts of this species have also been used traditionally for many medicinal and practical purposes. For example, it is used to make a sort of varnish applied to pottery. In the wild, jackalberry fruits are food for mammals such as elephants, racoons, gorillas and deer, which are important dispersers of seeds.

Ebony wood has been traded for centuries. From the seventeenth century, furniture made from ebony became very desirable in Europe. This much prized ebony was harvested from the slow growing Sri Lankan and Indian Diospyros ebenum, a species which is now endangered so legal export of the wood is restricted. Ebony wood is very hard, mostly black, dense, long lasting and extremely glossy when polished. Apart from furniture, it is used together with ivory as piano keys, as fretboards on stringed instruments such as guitars and violins, and traditionally for the black pieces in chess sets. Today, Diospyros crassiflora from forests in Central Africa is the main source of ebony.

Numerous human uses have been recorded across the distribution of the genus Diospyros. Unripe fruits of Asian Diospyros oleifera yield persimmon oil for waterproofing, whilst unripe fruits of Diospyros digyna from Central America and Mexico are used as fish poison.

Further reading

Burkill HM 1994. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. Vol 2. Families E-I. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, pp. 1-17.

Deblauwe V 2021. Life history, uses, trade and management of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern., the ebony tree of Central African forests: A state of knowledge. Forest Ecology and Management 481: 118655.

Serena Marner