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Ebony

The “tree of music” as it is famously called, ebony is one of the most expensive wood-yielding group of trees in the world. Famous for its hardwood and inability to float, the name ebony is essentially given to a group of plants with these characteristic features. The most prominent feature, however, is that which is related to its name; the wood is black or the darkest wood in the plant world.

Botany

Ebony consists of tropical shrubs or trees that are deciduous. Most belong to the genus Diospyros, which is found primarily in India, Sri Lanka, and Africa. A few ebony plants, such as the Texas ebony or the persimmon, grow in warm temperate regions. Heartwood is most often black, but some can also be dark red, green, and black with shades of yellow or orange. The stem contains tannin cells but lacks milky sap. The main root is long and fleshy. Leaves are alternate, oblong, thick, and leathery. Leaves also contain tannin cells. Several species may contain spines. The inflorescence is most often a cymose. Most often the flowers are unisexual. Flowers are actinomorphic, where they can be cut into halves along any plane. Usually there are more male flowers than female. Floral whorls may contain three to seven members each. There are likewise the same numbers of stamens. Female flowers, however, consist of two to eight carpels. The ovary is superior in position. The fruit is a berry, which may contain one to many seeds.

Species

Diospyros ebenum is considered to be the true ebony. It is found in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Mauritius. The tree is about 90 feet tall with a trunk length of 27 feet above which the canopy of foliage rests. These trees are propagated via stumps or seeds. The fruit, which is gummy, is used as a famine food. This fruit is also a poison for fish. The timber from this tree is one of the best commercialized ebonies in the world, followed by the African ebony. China imports this wood for the making of furniture.

Diospyros melanoxylem is shorter than Diospyros ebenum. This ebony shrub grows to a height of 75 feet. Found extensively in India and Pakistan, this tree tolerates frost, grows well in the tropics and mild temperate areas, and is also not fussy about its soil type. Trees grow on elevated, hilly areas as well as they do on the plains. During the hot months they shed their leaves, whereas when the weather cools they sprout evergreen leathery leaves. Flowers sprout in spring or summer. The best viable seeds are produced every other year. Seeds are dispersed with the help of bats and birds. The leaves of the tree are used for wrapping tobacco as in the Indian bidis. This species of Diospyros has multiple uses. It is an excellent fodder crop as the pruning of leaves becomes an ideal source of fodder. The twigs and branches burn well and are very good fuel wood. The timber is black heartwood, which is very heavy. This wood is ideal for carving and for fashioning ornamental items. Seeds of this ebony are used in the making of neurological and psychiatric medication for the treatment of mental disorders and mental breakdown. Diospyros melanoxylon is also a major species in Africa. The main areas where ebony is cultivated in Africa are Tanzania and Mozambique. In Swahili, this ebony tree is called Mpingo.

Diospyros dignya is an evergreen, deciduous, temperate shrub with a maximum height of 75 feet and found predominantly in Guatemala and Mexico. This species is locally known as the black persimmon. It does not tolerate frost and can grow from sea level to an altitude of 5,600 feet. The trees are tolerant of floods and are not sensitive to varying soil conditions. Propagation of plant is by seeds. However, seedless varieties are also cultured using techniques such as grafting or budding. The pulp of the fruit is sweet and edible. It can be eaten only when ripe or even blended with other fruits and essence to make refreshing beverages. Owing to its easy-to-use fruit pulp, the fruit is also part of desserts, ice creams, fruit salads, cakes, and puddings. When the fruit is unripe, it is not always agreeable to the digestive track, due to its high tannin properties. The bark is extracted for the purpose of making medicines such as analgesics. Timber is a mixture of black and yellow wood, yellow being more dominant. The wood, however, is very hard and compact and does not float in water. It is ideal for making furniture due to its appealing color for home decor. Black persimmon is regarded as a very nutritious fruit, containing high quantities of vitamin C in the ripe fruit, along with calcium and phosphorus.

Diospyros blancoi grows luxuriously in Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. Growing at altitudes as high as 2,400 feet, this plant can thrive well in a wet, monsoon climate. It is an evergreen tree that grows to a height of 100 feet and with a conical crown. The plant is most progressive when male and female trees are near to each other, and minimal numbers of agents are required to bring about pollination. The fruit is considered to be exotic, and is eaten when ripe. It is also added to salads. The timber is black and heavy as in most ebony species. The trees are also grown as ornamental plants.

The Japanese persimmon, Diospyros kaki an ebony species chiefly found in China, Japan, and Vietnam and also in the mountains of Indonesia. It has been transported to other regions too, where it took root in the United States in 1856, in Australia in 1885, and in Palestine in 1912. It can grow on the plains as well as at very high altitudes. Primarily tropical, it has also adapted to warm temperate conditions. The tree may be propagated from seeds and from root suckers. The ripe fruit is highly edible and used in the making of many delectable dishes such as sweets, pies, and jams. Roasted and powdered seeds are substituted for coffee, while the leaves can be brewed into a persimmon tea. The wood is prized for its close grains. Color may range from black with orange, yellow, brown, and gray. Tannin obtained from the leaves and unripe fruit is used in the preservation of the wood. Many kinds of alcoholic beverages are prepared by the fermentation of the fruit.

The Texas ebony, Ebanopsis ebano, is a large, stately tree that grows to a height of 135 feet. It is deciduous and xerophytic in nature, thriving well in arid conditions. Texas ebony, as the name implies, is found in Texas and in other southern states such as Florida. While this plant is desert tolerant, giving it additional water during its juvenile phase will hasten its growth. The crown of foliage is usually heavy and full. Pruning not only helps the tree bloom well but also makes it an ideal ornamental plant. Its fruit is not appealing, and hence it can be more of a fodder plant than one with edible fruit. The color of the heartwood is dark red tinged with purple or black.

Pests

There are many pests known to attack the ebony trees. Some species of ebony are more resistant, while others are highly susceptible. Mites, thrips, and stem borers can cause havoc to the plant by either eating the leaves or fruits or eating through the heartwood and boring tunnels. Mealy bugs can be a menace to young shoots, killing the plant even before it has a chance to reach full maturity. The Palo Verde borer is a menace in the larval form as it lays larvae in the soil that can attack the plant, feeding on its root and nutrients for as long as three years before detection. In most cases, the pests can be controlled by the topical use of organic pesticides. However, for the case of larval infestation of the pest, the best options would be to keep the plant well nourished with organic feeds and fertilizers. Many species of ebony are good at fixing nitrogen and accommodate many economically important plants like cardamom to grow in its shade.

The Need for Conservation

Most species of ebony, especially Diospyros ebenum and Diospyros melanoxylem, are valued for their timber. With dark heartwood, lustrous in look and figure, fine grained, having a smooth finish, ebony in many places, especially in Africa, is on the verge of extinction. In Africa, it is considered to be one of the most expensive trees and is always in danger of being smuggled out of the country. Trees take a very long time to grow and mature, making it difficult to keep pace with logging.

Ebony is also known to survive more as a solitary plant than as a community forest plant. Owing to its excellent timber qualities, color, and finish, ebony has become synonymous with musical instruments such as the piano.

Amanda Mittra

Further Reading

Arizona State University. “Texas Ebony.” http://www.public.asu.edu/~camartin/plants/ Plant%20html%20files/ebenopsisebano.html (accessed 5 October 2011).

“Diospyros ebenum.” Biodiversity Diversity and Co-Operation in Taxonomy for Interactive Shared Knowledge Base (BIOTIK). http://www.biotik.org/india/species/d/ dioseben/dioseben_en.html (accessed 5 October 2011).

“Diospyros melanoxylem.” Ebony, Music and Deforestation in East Africa. TED Case Studies No. 636. http://www1.american.edu/ted/ebony.htm (accessed 5 October 2011).

“Diospyros species.” International Center for Agroforestry. Agro Forestry Tree Database. http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/sea/Products/AFDbases/af/asp/ SpeciesInfo.asp?SpID=690 (5 October 2011).

University of Arizona, College of Agriculture. Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Home Horticulture. “Environmentally Responsible Gardening & Landscaping in the Low Desert. Palo Verde Borer Beetle.” http://ag.arizona.edu/maricopa/garden/html/t -tips/bugs/palo-bor.htm (5 October 2011).

 
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