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Diospyros whyteana fruit & pods. Picture courtesy Malcolm Manners - see his flickr pageBladdernut, Swartbas, Mohlatsane, munyavhili, umTenatane, uManzimane (Diospyros whyteana)
SA Tree No: 611

This decorative little evergreen tree is increasingly being cultivated in gardens around South Africa for its tidy shape and strikingly glossy, dark green leaves with a fringe of ginger hairs. The occasional bright red or orange leaf occurs, adding to the overall attractiveness of this plant. Scented, creamy-yellow to white bell-shaped flowers appear in spring, dangling from their hairy stalks. As with all Diospyros species, male and female flowers occur on separate trees, and only the female plants bear the masses of showy, fleshy berries that turn scarlet when ripe, and are borne throughout summer. Yet another attractive feature of this tree is its inflated, papery, balloon-like fruit pods that encapsulate the fruits, dry to red, and remain on the tree for many months after the fruit has fallen. The bark is another pretty feature, with the young branches being yellowish-green to pinkish and covered by fine coppery hairs. The mature bark is smooth and a lovely dark grey to almost black.

The Bladdernut makes a truly attractive and pleasing subject for any garden but is especially suitable for small gardens because it only grows about 6m tall. It can be shaped to form a large shrub or a small tree which branches low down and forms a dense canopy with a pleasing shape. Its dense foliage responds particularly well to clipping, making the Bladdernut a very good hedging or screening plant, and because it attracts all kinds of wildlife, it is definitely a ‘must-have’ for all wildlife gardens, great or small. Even if space is limited, it can be grown in containers or as a bonsai specimen, so there’s no excuse not to grow one!

The leaves are browsed by stock and game, and the fruits attract all kinds of birds, but especially birds like the Rameron pigeon, African green pigeon, loeries, barbets and bulbuls, who tug open the papery fruit covering as soon as they start to turn red, to get at the ripe, fleshy berries inside. The edible fruits are somewhat bitter and so not very tasty to humans, but traditionally the roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute. Traditional healers use bark extracts as enemas and for treating menstrual pain, impotency and infertility, and a leaf and root infusion can also be used to treat rashes.

This enticing little tree belongs to the Ebony family Ebenaceae, which is widely distributed worldwide, and from which the beautiful ebony wood traded by ancient merchants comes from. The wood of the bladder-nut is variable in colour, mainly whitish with brown to purple stripes. It is dense, evenly grained, strong and suitable for furniture, but large logs are difficult to come by, so smaller stems are used to make small household items and for making handles for implements etc.  

Diospyros whyteana. Picture courtesy Malcolm Manners - see his flickr pageOnly two genera are native to South Africa, Euclea and Diospyros. Diospyros includes the jackal-berry, blue bushes, monkey plums, and bladdernuts. Diospyros kaki, the edible persimmon, also belongs to this genus, but is not indigenous to Africa.

In South Africa the Bladdernut has a wide distribution and can be found growing naturally in forests, and on rocky mountain slopes in all the provinces, from the Western Cape and right up the coastal belt through to the Highveld, extending as far north as Ethiopia. It grows naturally in Afromontane forests.  Afromontane is an Afrotropic sub-region, and its plant and animal species are common to the mountains of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula. The Afromontane regions of Africa are discontinuous, separated from each other by lower-lying areas, and are sometimes referred to as the “Afromontane archipelago”, as their distribution is analogous to a series of ‘sky islands’.

The Bladdernut is easy to cultivate and will grow in full sun or semi-shade to approximately 2 to 7m tall with a 3 to 4m spread. It is frost tolerant but young trees should be protected in winter until they are established. Once established, the tree requires only moderate watering in the garden to look its best. It will adapt to all garden soils with good drainage, but because it is relatively slow-growing, prepare the planting site well, adding lots of organic matter like compost and a generous dressing of bone meal. Mulch the roots well but make sure the area around the trunk is clear to prevent rot. Further applications of compost, manure or a general purpose fertiliser during the year will also encourage a strong, healthy root system and faster growth.

The tree can be propagated from seed, which should first be scratched (scarified) before sowing. Fresh seed germinates readily in four to eight weeks.
Bladdernuts are relatively pest and disease free, but may occasionally be attacked by brown scale or sooty mould. These are easily treated with an appropriate pesticide or fungicide.

Gardening in South Africa