4
EBONY

Ebony trees (Diospyros species, Ebenaceae) are renowned worldwide. Their black, rock-hard wood is perhaps the smoothest, shiniest, and most beautiful of all. It is almost a precious material, sometimes sold by the gram like gold. But Diospyros, the generic name for these plants, actually means “fruit of the gods,” and outside the tropics ebony species are renowned for the persimmon. Originally from China, persimmon (Diospyros kaki) has for centuries ranked among the most prized fruits in certain areas, notably Japan and parts of Europe. Now it is gaining a more extensive following, with commercial production rising in the United States, Europe, Israel, and elsewhere. Thanks to genetic selection, airfreight, and advanced materials, an international trade in this fragile fruit is now beginning, with Israeli persimmons flying first-class all the way to Europe and the United States.

Almost unappreciated at present is the fact that most species in this genus are tropical, and that the species of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Americas also bear fruits. Typically, those fruits are yellow, red, or purplish in color, about the size of golf balls, sweet and tasty, exceptionally abundant, and widely enjoyed. Examples include the black sapote (Diospyros ebenaster) of Mexico and the velvet apple (Diospyros discolor) of the Far East.

Although hardly anything is known about Africa’s ebonies as crops, their long-term prospects could be good. These counterparts of the persimmon seem adaptable species; occurring from dry to humid zones all across the continent, from Senegal to Sudan and from Sudan to South Africa. This suggests that various ones could in the future be grown more widely too, and not only as scattered village trees but also as densely planted stands.

For agroforestry projects, African Diospyros species could be especially valuable. They are trees people know and love. As long as planting materials of superior types are supplied, millions are likely to plant them spontaneously and protect them from harm. Even now, volunteer plants are well cared for.1 Indeed, these African ebonies could become valuable not only for individual plantings but also for bordering streets and highways, for fencelines, for village plots, and for small-scale entrepreneurial endeavors (care should be taken when introducing ebonies to new areas, however, as

1

This is true of D. mespiliformis in Namibia, for instance. Information from P. du Plessis.



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