Diospyros dichrophylla

(Gand.) De Winter

Family : Ebenaceae (ebony family)
Common names : poison star-apple (Eng.); gifsterappel (Afr.); umNqandane (Zulu)


Diospyros dichrophylla is not as well known as some of members of the genus such as the oriental persimmon (D. kaki ), a lovely edible fruit now more commonly available in fruit stores throughout South Africa.

The poison star-apple is a shrub or tree, 2-3(-13) m high, It is single or multi-stemmed with branches that grow straight up, forming a dense canopy.


The bark is grey to brown, and rather smooth or sometimes wrinkled. The young branches and the new growth are covered in soft, yellowish to pale brownish, velvety hairs. The leaves are simple and arranged alternately or spirally. They are narrowly oblong, egg-shaped or oval with bluntly pointed or rounded tips, the base of the leaf narrowing, are glossy, leathery, dark green and hairless above and pale green and sparsely to densely covered with hairs below. The margin is often tightly rolled under, entire and not wavy. The central vein is raised below.

Leaves and flowers

The flowers are borne singly, on long, lax, leaf stalks, are bell-shaped, drooping and creamy white and can be seen from November to March. The 5-lobed calyx and petals curl backwards. The male and female flowers are on separate plants.

The fruit appears from March to October and is an almost round, slightly flattened berry with dense orange-yellow, velvety hairs. The persistent calyx has 5 narrow lobes that usually curve backwards.

There are 3-8 dark, shiny brown seeds.

Conservation status
It is common and widespread in the distribution area. According to Palmer & Pitman (1972), it is difficult to eradicate because of its tough root system.

Distribution and habitat
The poison star-apple is found in coastal scrub, coastal sandy flats, in open grassland, wooded ravines, on wooded rocky hillsides and along forest margins. This species is confined to a wide coastal belt all the way from Montagu in the west, eastward and northwards through the Eastern Cape and along the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast. It is one of the most common plants on top of the Lebombo Mountains ( Palmer & Pitman 1972). Some specimens have been collected in Limpopo, but it does not seem to occur further north of the Soutpansberg. This plant can tolerate some frost, and temperatures ranging between 8º and 39º C, but predominantly prefers the more moist areas with a high rainfall of 1 000 mm per year in the summer rainfall areas of South Africa. This plant does well in the Pretoria National Botanical Garden and can tolerate much more drought than indicated from its distribution.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The word Diospyros was derived from the Greek words, dios, meaning divine, and pyros, meaning grain of wheat. The specific name dichrophylla is based on the Greek words meaning bicoloured leaves. It was cultivated by the Dutch East India Company at the Cape as early as 1815 and was known in gardens of Europe even earlier than that. It is still used for hedges on St Helena (Palmer &Pitman 1972). It is said that the genus Diospyros is the most important one in the Ebenaceae family and about 20 species are found in South Africa.

The flowers are pollinated by insects. It is said that the fruit is taken by birds although it is alleged to be poisonous.

Uses and cultural aspects
The wood of this plant is hard and black, but is used only for firewood. Since it is claimed that the fruit is poisonous, it is not used for human consumption. It seems that it has only been grown as a garden plant. It makes a lovely little shrub or small tree and can be trimmed to form a hedge like its cousin, Diospyros whyteana. Aside from the edible D. khaki mentioned above, ebony is obtained from a number of tropical species. The more famous South African species is the jakkalsbessie, D. mespiliformis. Another South African species with attractive red fruits is the bluebush, D. lycioides.

Leaves and fruits of D dichrophylla

Growing Diospyros dichrophylla

It is difficult to root the Diospyros species from tip or semi-hardwood cuttings (Nichols 2005). It is best to make use of fresh seed to propagate the plant as it is the most successful method. To store the seeds, pre-treat them with an insecticide. If stored seeds are used, nick the seed coat before planting, to allow water to penetrate the seeds. Use ordinary seedling mix which can be purchased from any nursery. Sow the seeds from August to October.

Please remember that male and female flowers occur on different plants, so more than one plant is required to ensure pollination and seed formation. The plants are slow growing but extremely rewarding as the female trees bear masses of fruit that are attractive to the eye, and are ideal on the highveld for smaller gardens.

References and further reading

  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Ecolab, Rondebosch.
  • Nichols, G. 2005. Growing rare plants, a practical handbook on propagating the treatened plants of southern Africa. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 36. SABONET, Pretoria.
  • Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa, vol. 2 or 3?. Balkema, Cape Town.
  • Thomas, V. & Grant, R. 2004. SAPPI tree spotting. KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. Jacana, Johannesburg.
  • Van Wyk, A.E. (Braam) & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.


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