Diospyros mespiliformis (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Carbohydrate / starch|
|Forage / feed|
Diospyros mespiliformis Hochst. ex A.DC.
- Protologue: Prodr. 8: 672 (1844).
- Family: Ebenaceae
- Chromosome number: 2n = 30
- African ebony, wild African ebony, West African ebony, swamp ebony, Transvaal ebony, ebony diospyros, monkey guava, jackal berry (En).
- Ebène d’Afrique, ébène de Mozambique, kaki de brousse (Fr).
- Ebano africano (Po).
- Mgiriti, mjoho, mgombe, msindi, mpweke, mkadi (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Diospyros mespiliformis is extremely widespread, occurring from Senegal east to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya, and south to Namibia, northern South Africa and Swaziland, but it is nearly absent in the more humid forest zones of West and Central Africa. It is also found in Yemen. Trial plantings for fruit production exist in Israel, and Diospyros mespiliformis has also been planted in the southern parts of the United States.
The wood is used for posts in house construction, flooring, joinery, furniture, ship building, vehicle bodies, musical instruments such as drums, household utensils such as cups, spoons, pestles and mortars, tool handles, walking sticks, combs, agricultural implements such as ploughs, boxes, carvings and turnery. The heartwood is sometimes blackish and is then used as a substitute for Diospyros crassiflora Hiern, e.g. for decorative flooring and interior trim. The bole is used traditionally for dug-out canoes. The wood is also used as firewood, and is valued for charcoal production.
The fruit is sweet but acidulous with a slight lemon-like taste. It is often eaten raw when fully ripe, particularly by children, but sometimes also dried and kept for later use when food is scarce at the end of the dry season. The fruits are also used in the production of fruit juice and alcoholic drinks. They can be ground into a flour, which is sometimes an ingredient of porridge. The seeds are also eaten; they have a nut-like flavour. The leaves are occasionally eaten as vegetable, and the foliage is browsed by livestock. The gum from the bark is used to mend broken pottery, and fruit pulp to glaze and varnish pottery. Diospyros mespiliformis is planted for re-afforestation, as ornamental shade tree and as windbreak. The flowers serve as source of nectar for honey bees.
Various parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine. Roasted and pulverized roots are taken to treat jaundice, and root decoctions as anthelmintic, to ease childbirth, and to treat malaria, pneumonia and syphilis. Bark preparations are administered to treat cough, bronchial diseases, tuberculosis, syphilis and leprosy, and applied externally to wounds, ulcers, bruises and furuncles. The bark is also used in veterinary medicine as vermifuge. Leaf decoctions or infusions are taken to treat fever, diarrhoea, dysentery, trypanosomiasis, menorrhagia, whooping cough, hiccough and poisoning. Leaf preparations are externally applied to treat fever, pneumonia, conjunctivitis and otitis, and as haemostatic and antiseptic to wounds, yaws and furuncles. Fruit decoctions or infusions are taken to treat dysentery, diarrhoea and menorrhagia. Fruit ash is applied to fungal skin infections and fruit powder to ulcers, whereas seed decoctions are administered against headache. Twigs are chewed to clean the teeth. Various parts of the tree are used in ritual ceremonies.
Production and international trade
The wood of Diospyros mespiliformis is only traded in very small amounts on the international timber market, and then usually together with the wood of more important ebony producers such as Diospyros crassiflora. It is available in local markets, e.g. in Sudan.
In Gambia Diospyros mespiliformis is classified amongst the 20 most important timber species. Locally high-quality carvings are in great demand by tourists. The fruits are traded on local markets and may provide vital supplementary income for poor households.
The heartwood is pinkish grey to pinkish brown, darkening to dark brown upon exposure. Some boles have a blackish core up to 25 cm wide. The heartwood is indistinctly demarcated from the slightly paler sapwood. The grain is wavy to interlocked, texture fine and even.
The wood is heavy with a density of (640–)800–900 kg/m³ at 12% moisture content. It air dries slowly, with some risk of distortion and checking. It takes about 8 weeks to air dry boards of 2.5 cm thick from 60% to 12% moisture content. Kiln drying should be done with care because of a severe risk of case-hardening. The rates of shrinkage are moderate, from green to 12% moisture content 2.5–2.9% radial and 3.9–5.1% tangential, and from green to oven dry about 3.6% radial and 7.3% tangential. Once dried, the wood is stable in service. At 12% moisture content, the modulus of rupture is 93–111 N/mm², modulus of elasticity 11,100–11,960 N/mm², compression parallel to grain 51–57 N/mm², shear 15–19 N/mm², Janka side hardness 6750–9470 N and Janka end hardness 10,400 N.
The wood is moderately difficult to saw and work, particularly with hand tools. It may cause serious blunting of saw teeth and cutting edges. The wood surfaces take an excellent polish, but picking up of interlocked grain may occur in planning; a reduced cutting angle of 20° is recommended. The wood finishes well without the use of a filler. It has a tendency to split upon nailing, and pre-boring is advised. The heartwood is durable, being resistant to termite attack, but sometimes susceptible to boring beetles such as Anobium spp. The sapwood is liable to attack by blue stain fungi, brown and white rot fungi and Lyctus, but it is moderately easily to treat with preservatives by impregnation. Saw dust may cause allergic contact dermatitis and irritation of mucous membranes in wood workers.
The composition of fruits per 100 g edible portion is: water 69 g, energy 404 kJ (97 kcal), protein 1.1 g, fat 0.4 g, carbohydrate 22 g, fibre 6.2 g, Ca 96 mg, Mg 28 mg, P 46 mg, Fe 1 mg, thiamin 0.01 mg, riboflavin 0.04 mg, niacin 0.24 mg and ascorbic acid 24.6 mg. Analysis of the fruits in northern Nigeria showed that only low amounts of antinutritional factors such as oxalate, phytate, saponin and tannin are present. The seeds contain about 9% water and their protein content is 4.9 g per 100 g fresh weight. Fruit extracts showed high radical-scavenging capacity.
The results of tests with mice and rats suggested that stem bark extracts contain an agent with neuropharmacological activity that may be sedative in nature, and the extracts showed antipyretic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities, supporting the applications in traditional medicine for relieving pain and fever. Tests with rat skeletal muscle cells showed that bark extracts inhibited intracellular calcium release, which could explain the use of the bark as antihypertensive and antidiarrhoeal agents. Root, bark and leaf extracts showed antimicrobial activities against bacteria and fungi. The naphthoquinone epoxide diosquinone has been isolated from the root bark. It showed pronounced in-vitro antibacterial as well as cytotoxic activity against several human cancer cell lines. Plumbagin has also been isolated from the roots; this compound also has antibacterial activity.
Adulterations and substitutes
The wood of Diospyros mespiliformis is sometimes mixed with that of Diospyros crassiflora Hiern, which is a more highly valued ebony with blackish heartwood.
- Evergreen or semi-deciduous, dioecious, small to medium-sized tree up to 25(–40) m tall; bole usually straight and cylindrical, branchless for up to 18 m, up to 150(–200) cm in diameter, sometimes fluted at base or with buttresses; bark surface with longitudinal fissures, exfoliating in rather thin rectangular scales, blackish grey, inner bark black in outer layer, pinkish in inner layer; crown rounded, dense; branches often knobby, grey, young twigs short-hairy.
- Leaves alternate, simple and entire; stipules absent; petiole 0.5–1 cm long; blade narrowly elliptical to oblong-elliptical or narrowly obovate, 3.5–19 cm × 1.5–7.5 cm, cuneate to rounded at base, acute to slightly acuminate or rounded at apex, thin-leathery, minutely hairy below, pinnately veined with 12–20 pairs of indistinct lateral veins.
- Flowers axillary, unisexual, regular, 4–5-merous, nearly sessile; calyx with tube about as long as lobes, woolly hairy outside; corolla short-hairy, white to greenish yellow, with narrowly urn-shaped tube and short lobes; male flowers 3 together on a 4–6 mm long peduncle, with c. 3 mm long calyx and c. 6 mm long corolla, stamens c. 14, 4 mm long, with short filaments, ovary rudimentary; female flowers usually solitary, with c. 8 mm long calyx having large lobes with wavy margins and 10–12 mm long corolla, stamens rudimentary, ovary superior, ovoid-conical, c. 3 mm long, 4–6-celled, stigma sessile, 2–3-lobed.
- Fruit a globose berry up to 2.5 cm in diameter, warty, hairy but becoming glabrous, yellowish and finally purplish when ripe, enclosed at base by calyx, 3–6-seeded.
- Seeds compressed oblong-ellipsoid, up to 1 cm long, reddish brown to dark brown.
- Seedling with epigeal germination; hypocotyl c. 6 cm long, thick, epicotyl c. 1 cm long, flattened; cotyledons leafy but slightly fleshy, elliptical, c. 1.5 cm long, early caducous; first two leaves opposite.
Other botanical information
Diospyros is a large pantropical genus of about 500 species; in mainland tropical Africa about 90 species occur and several produce valuable timber or edible fruits.
Diospyros bussei Gürke (synonym: Diospyros cornii Chiov.) is a small evergreen tree up to 15(–18) m tall, occurring in open woodland and wooded grassland in Somalia, eastern Kenya and eastern Tanzania. Its dark brown heartwood is used in ship building and for poles and walking sticks. The fruit is edible.
Diospyros ferrea (Willd.) Bakh. is a small tree up to 15 m tall, with bole up to 30 cm in diameter. It is even more widespread than Diospyros mespiliformis, occurring in a wide variety of habitats from Senegal east to Kenya and south to Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Madagascar, but also in tropical Asia, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia. In tropical Asia, where Diospyros ferrea trees can reach larger dimensions, the heavy wood is used for joinery, furniture, musical instruments, sporting goods, utensils, carvings and turnery. The heartwood can be blackish, often with yellowish streaks, and is sometimes traded as a substitute of Diospyros ebenum J.König, which is considered to produce the best commercial black ebony and is native to southern India and Sri Lanka, but has occasionally been planted in botanical gardens in Africa. The fruit pulp of Diospyros ferrea is edible. In Madagascar leaf decoctions are used to treat stomach-ache.
Diospyros greenwayi F.White is a shrub or small tree up to 15 m tall, endemic to eastern Kenya and eastern Tanzania. Its wood is occasionally used for poles in house building.
Diospyros kabuyeana F.White is an evergreen small tree up to 15(–25) m tall, endemic to moister forest and riverine forest in eastern Kenya and Tanzania. Its wood is used in house construction, especially for posts, and has been used for making bows.
Diospyros quiloensis (Hiern) F.White is a small deciduous tree up to 10 m tall, native to Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The black heartwood is distinctly demarcated from the yellowish sapwood and is in great demand for carvings, e.g. for masks and animals for the tourist industry. The wood is sometimes also used in construction because of its great durability. The fruit pulp is edible.
Diospyros senensis Klotzsch is a spiny shrub or small tree up to 12 m tall, occurring in dry deciduous forest and thickets in southern DR Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Its tough wood is used in construction and for tool handles. Root infusions are applied to the chest of children to treat colds.
Diospyros squarrosa Klotzsch is a shrub or small tree up to 12 m tall, occurring from southern DR Congo, Somalia and Kenya south to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The wood is used for poles and tool handles. The fruit pulp is edible. Decoctions of roots, bark and leaves are administered to treat malaria.
Diospyros verrucosa Hiern is a shrub or small tree up to 15(–18) m tall, endemic to southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Its wood is used for poles in house construction and for utensils. The fruit pulp is edible.
Wood-anatomical description (IAWA hardwood codes):
- Growth rings: 2: growth ring boundaries indistinct or absent.
- Vessels: 5: wood diffuse-porous; (10: vessels in radial multiples of 4 or more common); 13: simple perforation plates; 22: intervessel pits alternate; 23: shape of alternate pits polygonal; 24: intervessel pits minute (≤ 4 μm); 30: vessel-ray pits with distinct borders; similar to intervessel pits in size and shape throughout the ray cell; 41: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 50–100 μm; 42: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 100–200 μm; 46: ≤ 5 vessels per square millimetre; 47: 5–20 vessels per square millimetre; 58: gums and other deposits in heartwood vessels.
- Tracheids and fibres: 61: fibres with simple to minutely bordered pits; 66: non-septate fibres present; 70: fibres very thick-walled.
- Axial parenchyma: 77: axial parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates; 78: axial parenchyma scanty paratracheal; 86: axial parenchyma in narrow bands or lines up to three cells wide; (87: axial parenchyma reticulate); 92: four (3–4) cells per parenchyma strand; 93: eight ( 5–8) cells per parenchyma strand.
- Rays: (96: rays exclusively uniseriate); (97: ray width 1–3 cells); 109: rays with procumbent, square and upright cells mixed throughout the ray; 116: ≥ 12 rays per mm.
- Mineral inclusions: 136: prismatic crystals present; 137: prismatic crystals in upright and/or square ray cells; 138: prismatic crystals in procumbent ray cells; (154: more than one crystal of about the same size per cell or chamber).
Growth and development
Diospyros mespiliformis grows quite slowly. Seedlings reach about 10 cm tall 2.5 months after germination and 20–30 cm tall after 6 months, and young trees are often only 1–1.5 m tall after 5 years. In northern Cameroon in a region with a mean annual rainfall of 800 mm, the survival rate was 54% and the mean height only 2.4 m 18 years after planting, but in a region with a mean annual rainfall of 1000 mm trees reached an average height of 4.0 m after 12 years. In natural forest in Côte d’Ivoire, the diameter growth was estimated at 5 mm/year over a period of 60 years, and in Benin at 6 mm/year.
Young foliage is pinkish to reddish brown, and old leaves become yellow before they fall. The foliage is commonly eaten by elephants, antelopes and buffaloes. The flowers are pollinated by insects such as bees. In West Africa trees usually flower in the second part of the dry season, but elsewhere flowering usually takes place in the rainy season. In southern Africa flowers are most common in October–November. Fruits ripen about 6 months later. They are eaten by baboons, which serve as seed dispersers, although tests in Ghana showed that the germination rate of seeds that passed the digestive organs of baboons was not improved. The fruits are also eaten by other monkeys, antelopes, elephants, jackals, birds such as hornbills, pigeons, parrots and turacos, and fruit bats, which all may disperse seeds. It is said that the tree can live for more than 200 years.
Diospyros mespiliformis occurs in woodland and wooded savanna, sometimes also in fringes of more humid forest, up to 1350 m altitude, rarely up to 2000 m. In many drier regions it is commonly found in riparian forest. The mean annual rainfall in the area of distribution is 300–2000 mm, with a dry season of up to 8 months. Diospyros mespiliformis is usually found on more fertile, deep soils, often on alluvial soils and termite mounds, but it is occasionally found on rocky hill slopes. Young trees have been recorded to be sensitive to fire.
Propagation and planting
In natural forest in northern Benin, natural regeneration has been reported to be quite good, with about 290 seedlings and 60 saplings per ha. In central Côte d’Ivoire about 280 seedlings and saplings were counted per ha. Diospyros mespiliformis often regenerates abundantly in dry secondary forest.
Diospyros mespiliformis is usually propagated by seeds. Fruits should be collected from the tree when they start to become yellow, to avoid competition by animals such as birds. Seeds should be depulped and cleaned in running water, and subsequently dried in the sun before storage. There are 2400–3200 seeds per kg. The seeds usually germinate within 6 weeks. They can be stored for several years in airtight containers at 3°C and about 5% moisture content, but at room temperature for not more than one year. Scalding the seeds for 3–7 minutes accelerates germination, as well as partial removal of the seed coat by nicking. However, in Malawi a germination rate of more than 80% was achieved by simply cleaning and soaking the seeds. In Burkina Faso grafting experiments showed promising results. Root suckers can also be used for propagation. Young trees are difficult to transplant; sowing on the permanent site is recommended.
In most parts of its distribution area, Diospyros mespiliformis is neither particularly rare nor particularly abundant. Only very locally it is abundant or dominant. In the Sudano-Sahelian zone, Diospyros mespiliformis is characteristic for terrace sites in agroforestry landscapes with millet and maize cultivation. In southern Africa trees are often left when clearing land for agricultural fields so that fruits can be harvested. Tests in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana showed that the application of an inorganic NPK fertilizer may have significant effect on the height and diameter growth of seedlings. Trees can be coppiced and pruned.
Diseases and pests
Fruits are eaten by numerous animals, often already before they are fully ripe. Seeds are commonly attacked by boring insects and should be protected when stored.
Some caution is needed during harvesting operations because logs of large trees may have brittle heart or may be hollow. In Benin a minimum bole diameter of 35 cm and a cutting cycle of 25 years have been recommended for harvesting, but this seems to be inadequate for sustainable harvesting.
A bole of 50 cm in diameter harvested in northern Côte d’Ivoire was estimated to yield 1 m³ of wood.
Handling after harvest
Due to the high density of the wood logs do not float in water and cannot be transported by river. After cutting, the heartwood of logs slowly becomes darker, sometimes to black, and burying has been reported to accelerate the process of darkening.
Diospyros mespiliformis is extremely widespread and there is no reason to consider it as threatened by genetic erosion. However, it is locally extensively exploited for timber and firewood and may be under pressure in some regions.
Diospyros mespiliformis is a true multipurpose tree, which is of great importance to local communities of African people. It does not only provide wood, but also edible fruits, traditional medicines and forage. Moreover, it plays an important role in the ecosystem, providing food to numerous animals. More research on this species is therefore warranted, particularly on propagation and planting, and on growth rates under different circumstances. More detailed pharmacological studies are recommended because the interesting medicinal properties found in research might be developed into new drugs.
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Correct citation of this article
El-Kamali, H.H., 2011. Diospyros mespiliformis Hochst. ex A.DC. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Lemmens, R.H.M.J., Louppe, D. & Oteng-Amoako, A.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 31 January 2023.
- See the Prota4U database.