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Diospyros L.

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Order Ericales
Family Ebenaceae
Distribution all the tropics,
4 in temperate areas

ca. 500-600


Most species are tropical.


Diospyros L. (1753) The name of the family is based on Ebenus Kuntze (1891), which is a later homonym of Ebenus L. (1753), a genus of flowering shrubs in Leguminosae.

Ebony (French: ébène) is the dense black heartwood of many Diospyros species, ans some species in Leguminosae. Ebony has a very high density and will sink in water. It has a fine texture and gives a very smooth finish, and is mostly used for carving or furniture.

Species called ebony and belonging to Leguminosae

  • Dalbergia melanoxylon, African blackwood, African ebony; French: ébène du Mozambique, grenadille d'Afrique
  • Dalbergia hostilis is an African liana or shrub. only available in small pieces.
  • Dalbergia oblongifolia, an African liana with blackish heartwood.
  • Dalbergia sissoo, French: ébène jaune. A shrub or small tree, from temperate to tropical Asia.
  • Brya ebenus, cocuswood, Jamaica ebony, American ebony


Ebony first came to the knowledge of Mediterranean peoples through Egypt. Later, Greeks learned to know several species. According to Amigues (1989), Theophrastus (H.P., IV, 4, 6) describes two types of ebenê (ἐβένη) from India, which "include two varieties, one with a good and beautiful wood, another of a mediocre quality". The first could be Dalbergia sissoo, present in central Asia, and the second Diospyros ebenum, only present in southern India, and which the Greeks of Alexander probably only knew thorough wooden artifacts.

Origin of the name Diospyros

(for the origin of persimmon and plaquemine, see Diospyros virginiana)

  • διόσπυρον - diospyron in Theophrastes (H.P. III, 13, 3) is the fruit of Celtis australis, which is called λωτός - lôtos (Amigues, 1989). Several trees have been called lôtos, and in other places, it means jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi or Ziziphus lotus according to Amigues).
  • Διὸς πυρόν - Dios pyron in Dioscorides (III, 141) is a synonym of λιθόσπερμον, and has been identified as Lithospermum officinale.
  • Pliny XVI, 123: the faba Graeca that in Rome, for the sweetness of its fruit, actually wild, but similar to the cherry, is called lotos". (French translation by André (1962), translated to English by Michel Chauvet).
  • πυρός - pyros is an old Greek name for wheat. Its derivative πυρήν - pyrên means a pip or stone of a fruit (which is the origin of apyrene for a seedless fruit). So, διόσπυρον was a motivated word meaning "wheat of Zeus" or "grain of God". This can fit with the stone of the Celtis drupe, as well as the bony fruit of Lithospermum. But the relation with the genus Diospyros is not a direct one.

Why did Linnaeus chose the name Diospyros? He is known to have arbitrarily taken names simply because they were available. In this case, he could not use Lotus, which he had already chosen for a genus of herbaceous Leguminosae. In his Species Plantarum (p. 1057), he gives as a synonym Lotus africana latifolia Bauhin (Pinax, p.447).

Bauhin, in his article Lotus, explains that there are three distinct lotus arbor in Pliny and Theophrastus, according to Daléchamp, and adds a fourth one. His second species is our Diospyros lotus:

"Altera διόσπυρος Theoph. l. 3. c. 13. (Jovis flamma Gaza) quam improprie Loton vocant, ob fructus dulcedinem Ceraso similem, nucleo duro: et Plinio l. 16. c. 30. lotos sive faba Græca etc. et l. 24. c. 2."

"II. Lotus Africana latifolia. Variat : nam in fructu Patavii, semina bina aut terna plana & spadicei coloris observavimus: at quæ Viennæ & Bononiæ coluntur, etiam ex semine Italico natæ, fructus semine expertes, sola pulpa constare, Clus. in sua hist. notavit." This last sentence shows that Bauhin observed fruits with two or three flat seeds, and others which were seedless.

In conclusion, the choice of the name Diospyros by Linnaeus is due to an identification of the name in Theophrastus by Renaissance botanists, and particularly Bauhin. The similarity of fruits between Diospyros lotus and Ziziphus spp. (the Lotus Africana angustifolia of Bauhin), which have a similar size, need to be eaten overripe and are often dried, has led botanists to call lotus the species Diospyros lotus, which was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. This identification survives in the English translation of Theophrastus by Hort and the Greek dictionary of Bailly. (Michel Chauvet)


The genus Diospyros includes ca. 500-600 species, with 200-300 in Asia and the Pacific area, 95 in Madagascar, 94 in continental Africa, 100 in America and 15 in Australia (Kubitzki 6, 2004). Only 4 fruit species are temperate. Many tropical species are used as timber, called ebony when their heartwood is black, dark-coloured or streaked.

Temperate fruit species

Temperate ornamental species

Tropical fruit species

For 'Diospyros ebenaster' , see Diospyros ebenum, and also Diospyros digyna and Diospyros revoluta.

Many other tropical Diospyros have edible fruits, but their use is mostly local, occasional or even as a famine food.

Black ebony species

major species

minor species:

Streaked (striped) ebony species

White timbers

Leaves used for wrapping bidis

To be classified


  • PROSEA 5 (2), 1995. Plant resources of South-East Asia. vol. 5 (2). Timber trees : minor commercial timbers. ed. by R.H.M.J. Lemmens, I. Soerianegara & W.C. Wong. Leiden/Wageningen, Backhuys/PROSEA. (Bogor, PROSEA, 1995). 655 p.