Prota 16: Fibres/Plantes à fibres
Ann. Mus. Natl. Hist. Nat. 6: 448 (1805).
2n = 30, 60
Bluebush, bluebush star-apple, red star-apple, monkey plum, African persimmon (En). Plaqueminier élégant (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Diospyros lycioides occurs in Central Africa, southern Tanzania, throughout southern Africa, including South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, but excluding the winter-rainfall area. It is occasionally cultivated in South Africa and elsewhere in the tropics. In Australia it also naturalized and categorized as a weed.
Pieces of root of Diospyros lycioides are widely and commonly used as toothbrush, and pieces of the stem are used similarly in some areas. The small-sized wood is mainly suitable for small items of furniture and carvings such as trinket boxes, spoons and handles for tools and implements. Occasionally the wood is used in hut construction, especially where smaller branches are needed. It is also used for fencing and as fuel. The leaves are important browse for both domestic and wild animals, although it is said to taint the milk of cows. In southern Africa the fruit and seed are used as food and are also used to make beer. Fruits are also fermented to distil alcohol. The roasted ground seeds were once used as a coffee substitute. A yellowish brown dye is obtained from the roots while the bark is used for tanning skins. In Botswana the dye is used to colour palm leaves for basketry. The plant is a bee forage. In South Africa and some parts of Europe, Diospyros lycioides is planted in gardens and used in landscaping.
The roots are used medicinally by local people. The root is chewed for the treatment of colds and coughs. The powdered root or a root extract is used against eye ailments. The roasted and powdered root mixed with mutton fat makes a thorn plaster and is used to ease body pain. The powdered root bark is used as an abortifacient; it is also rubbed into scarifications to treat patients with pneumonia or snake-bites. Root decoctions are held in the mouth to allay toothache or gargled against a sore throat, and they are drunk against female infertility, blood in the stool, abdominal pain, body pain, cardiac pain, and epilepsy. Root decoctions are taken against dysmenorrhoea and form part of a medicine given to vomiting babies. The root decoction and the raw fruit are considered to be effective against tuberculosis. In South Africa decoctions of the root mixed with those of Cassia petersiana (Bolle) Lock and Euclea natalensis A.DC. are eaten with sheep or goat meat to treat epilepsy and asthma.
The Venda people use Diospyros lycioides, mixed with Gardenia sp., to appease the spirit of a young man who has died before marriage. In times of war they use parts of this tree mixed with hedgehog prickles and duiker blood to provide protection against enemies. In Zimbabwe and Malawi pieces of root are buried in the corners of the house as protection against witchcraft.
Production and international trade
The fruits are traded locally in southern Africa. In Australia Diospyros lycioides is a quarantined weed which requires assessment before entry into the country. There are no restrictions on its importation in the United States.
Chewing the root gives the teeth a yellow colour. In a health survey in Namibia users of Diospyros lycioides toothbrushes were found to have less caries than non-users. Early analyses of extracts of the leaves and young twigs yielded lupeol and ursolic acid. Later, methanol extracts of the twigs were found to inhibit growth of several common oral pathogens, including Streptococcus mutans, Streptococcus sanguinis, Prevotella intermedia and Porphyromonas gingivalis which supports their use as chewing sticks. The bactericidal effect has been attributed to several naphthalene glycosides (named diospyrosides), bi-naphthalenone glycosides, and the naphtoquinones juglone and 7-methyljuglone. Methylnaphthazarin, mamegakinone and 8’-hydroxyisodiospyrin have been identified in a trichlormethanol extract of the powdered root bark.
The heartwood of Diospyros lycioides is pink-brown and distinct from the paler sapwood. The wood is moderately durable. It is resistant to impregnation and tends to warp if not properly stacked and dried slowly. It saws cleanly and holds nails well. It planes to a fairly smooth finish. It takes paint and varnish well and glues firmly. The wood sands and polishes well. Mechanical strength and shrinkage values not known. Weight at 12% moisture content is about 750 kg/m³. The commercial availability of timber is restricted due to small size.
The fruit pulp contains per 100 g: water 78.0 g, energy 296 kJ (71 kcal), protein 0.9 g, fat 0.1 g, carbohydrate 16.5 g, crude fibre 3.5 g, Ca 66.8 mg, Mg 39.7 mg, P 13.7 mg, Fe 1.0 mg, Zn 0.3 mg, thiamin 0.11 mg, riboflavin 0.09 mg, niacin 0.17 mg, ascorbic acid 45.2 mg (Wehmeijer, A.S., 1986). The fruit is not very popular; it may be slightly poisonous for humans.
In South Africa the nutritional value of the browse was analyzed. Leaves contain 12–14 g crude protein per 100 g dry matter, twigs 7.6 g when 2 mm in diameter, 4.6 g at 10 mm diameter and further declining with thickness. Another analysis indicated that the leaves contain per 100 g dry matter 12.5 g crude protein and 54,4 g neutral detergent fibre (NDF), and the twigs 5.7 g crude protein and 64,2 g NDF. Poisoning has been recorded in sheep after they had eaten the leaves and fruits. Alkaloids have been detected in the leaf. Extracts of stem and leaves have shown dose-dependent anti-inflammatory effects by suppressing cyclooxyenase enzymes.
The tough roots rapidly blunt ploughs and other tools.
Dioecious shrub or small tree up to 7 m tall, sometimes much smaller; bole sometimes spinescent towards the base; bark grey, more or less smooth. Leaves clustered at the ends of branches, simple and entire; petiole 3–15 mm long; blade obovate to oblanceolate, 1.5–8 cm × 0.5–3 cm, base cuneate, apex broadly tapering to rounded to acute, margin entire and tightly rolled under, papery to leathery, drying dull green or grey-green above, paler beneath, lower surface sparsely to densely silky hairy when young, hairs sometimes persistent, especially on the veins, midrib and lateral veins not prominently raised, secondary veins in 5–6 pairs. Flowers solitary in axils of leaves or reduced leaves towards base of current year’s growth, 8–15 mm in diameter, pendulous, creamy white, fragrant; pedicel slender, up to 3 cm long; calyx up to 8 mm long, deeply cleft into 5 lobes, densely silky hairy, lobes narrowly deltate or lanceolate-acuminate; corolla up to 1 cm. long, bell-shaped, widely open at the throat, densely strigulose outside, lobed to just below the middle, lobes 5, ovate-oblong, obtuse; male flower with 10 stamens 3–4.5 mm long, with glabrous filaments and narrowly lanceolate, apiculate, densely setose anthers, pistillode similar to functional pistil but with reduced styles and lacking stigmas; female flower with 10 densely setose staminodes 1–2 mm long, ovary subglobose, 2.5 mm × 2.5 mm, ridged, tomentellous, 6, 8 or 10-celled, styles (3–)5, common part puberulous, style-branches glabrous, ending in a shallowly bi-lobed stigma. Fruit an ovoid or globose berry up to 2 cm × 1.5 cm, apiculate, red, becoming black, downy hairy or glabrescent, persistent calyx accrescent, up to 1.5 cm long, lobes narrowly deltate and ultimately strongly reflexed, 1–6-seeded. Seeds up to 13 mm long, brown, smooth.
Other botanical information
Diospyros is a large pantropical genus of about 500 tree species. Most of them are native to the tropics, with only a few species extending into temperate regions. In tropical Africa, about 90 species occur, several of which produce valuable timber or edible fruits; in Madagascar also about 90 species occur. Phylogenetic evidence indicates that Diospyros section Royena is a distinct, monophyletic group of closely related species. It has been considered a separate genus, but most authorities retain it as a section of Diospyros.
In Diospyros lycioides 4 subspecies are recognized differing mainly in leaf form and distribution:
– subsp. lycioides (synonym: Royena lycioides (Desf.) A.DC.; vernacular name: Karoo bluebush): shrub or small tree up to 7 m tall; branchlets spreading at right angles or slightly ascending at the ends, occasionally spinescent; leaves crowded towards the tips, blade up to 4 cm × 1.5 cm, glabrous or slightly velvety, lateral veins not raised. It is mainly found in Botswana, Zimbabwe and the drier parts of Namibia and South Africa, in riparian forest and thicket at 600–1000(–2700) m altitude.
– subsp. guerkei (Kuntze) De Winter (synonym: Royena guerkei Kuntze; vernacular names: quilted bluebush, eastern bluebush, Natal bluebush): shrub or small tree up to 5 m tall; branchlets ascending, not spinescent; leaves not crowded, blade 2–5 cm × 1–2 cm, distinctly net-veined. It occurs in Botswana and north-eastern South Africa, in rocky habitats, often associated with quartzite outcrops, from sea-level up to 2150 m altitude.
– subsp. nitens (Harv. ex Hiern) De Winter (synonym: Royena nitens Harv. ex Hiern; vernacular name: silvery bluebush): small, multi-stemmed shrub up to 1.5 m tall; leaf blade small, up to 2 cm × 1 cm, densely covered with silvery hairs. It occurs in north-eastern South Africa, in dry, hot bushveld, grasslands and rocky outcrops, from sea-level up to 1550 m altitude.
– subsp. sericea (Bernh.) De Winter (synonym: Royena sericea Bernh.; vernacular names: eastern bluebush, Kalahari star apple, hairy bluebush, Natal bluebush): shrub or small tree up to 7 m tall; branchlets usually ascending, with the leaves inserted more or less evenly along their length, rarely spinescent; leaf blade up to 8 cm × 3 cm, densely hairy. It is distributed from Upper Shaba in DR Congo and Angola southwards to Namibia and eastern Cape Province in South Africa, occurring from sea-level up to 2000 m altitude in bushland and thicket, especially on riverbanks and termite mounds and in rocky locations, sometimes at edges of riparian forest or forming secondary thickets following over-grazing.
Growth and development
Early growth is fast. In Zimbabwe trees produce fruits after 4 years. In southern Africa flowering is in (August–)September–December(–April), and fruiting in (November–)January–May(–October). Old fruits remain on the tree until the next flowering season. Diospyros lycioides is in leaf year round, with some bare individuals in winter and with new leaves in September–November. The species forms thickets from the root system.
Diospyros lycioides is one of the most widely distributed and ecologically versatile woody species in southern Africa. It occurs from sea-level up to 2700 m altitude and is most common in open vegetation, often along rivers or on termite mounds. It is an indicator of bush encroachment in rangeland in South Africa.
Propagation and planting
Diospyros lycioides seeds are orthodox and store well. Propagation is best done with seeds soaked overnight in hot water. Propagation by cuttings is very difficult. The 1000-seed weight is 90–140 g. Seedlings require exposure to full sun, but can tolerate very cold conditions. Natural dispersal of seed is mainly by mammals that eat the fruit.
In southern Africa Diospyros lycioides is collected from natural woodlands. In South Africa it is also planted and tended in home gardens. Plants are spaced at 90–120 cm. Pinching out branch tips when young will encourage a bushy plant. The tree can be coppiced.
In rangeland Diospyros lycioides is controlled by slashing followed by application of herbicides to regrowth. In Australia importation of Diospyros lycioides is prohibited, except for subsp. sericea, which can be imported under strict conditions.
Diseases and pests
The species has moderate resistance to termites, borers and fungal attack. It is a food plant of caterpillars of the butterfly Poecilmitis lycegenes. Like other species of the genus, Diospyros lycioides is probably vulnerable to the sac fungus Pseudocercospora kaki which causes leaf spot. The female of the scale insect Ceroplastes royenae attacks Diospyros lycioides subsp. sericea in Zimbabwe.
Roots and twigs are generally collected from wild plants. Traditionally, harvesting of medicinal roots for example in Zimbabwe is supposed to be done on one side of the tree. Fruits are picked by hand when fully mature as unripe fruits have a high tannin content. The hard skin easily breaks on impact.
No data on yield of roots or twigs are available.
Handling after harvest
Roots to be used as toothbrush are cleaned and they are chewed with the bark on. The fruit coat is fragile and fruits should be handled with care. The fruit may ferment and become sour if stored for several days.
Diospyros lycioides is a widespread and hardy species that can become weedy. There are no indications that the species is under threat of genetic erosion.
Diospyros lycioides will remain an important source of chew sticks and traditional medicines. There is need for prospecting of its medicinal potential by pharmaceutical companies, while the indigenous people who have used the plant for long periods of time, should be given due compensation and royalties. At the same time, it has been declared a weed in Australia and an indicator of bush encroachment in South Africa and its control will require monitoring and research. There is a need for further investigation of the taxonomy of the four subspecies.
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Sources of illustration
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Correct citation of this article:
Mujuru, L., 2011. Diospyros lycioides Desf. In: Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). Prota 16: Fibres/Plantes à fibres. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
wild and planted
1, male flower; 2, fruiting branch.
obtained from B. Wursten
obtained from B. Wursten
obtained from SANBI