Rare (uncommon) Tree of the Year 2017

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Euclea pseudebenus Picture courtesy www.kyffhauser.co.zaEuclea pseudebenus Picture courtesy www.kyffhauser.co.za  Ebony Tree, Ebony Guarri, Ebbehout, Tsawib (Euclea pseudebenus)

If you are looking for an elegant indigenous shade tree which is evergreen and can cope with very hot and dry conditions, the ebony tree is one of the best and well worth searching for.  This dessert plant is quite happy growing in both winter and summer rainfall conditions and is found in northern Namaqualand and eastwards to Bushmanland, where it hugs the Gariep River on both the South African and Namibian sides.

Its range extends throughout the southwestern, central and north-western part of Namibia and into the Kaokoveld and southern Angola. In its natural desert and semi-desert habitat it can be found growing in stony ground, usually in low-lying seasonal flood plains and in areas along watercourses, or close by. It is well adapted to its harsh environment, possessing an extensive taproot system that is able to reach deep into the ground, where subterranean water may be found.

The ebony tree is fast becoming a sought after shade tree for gardeners in dry, arid regions, because it is suitable for gardens small or large. As with many arid environment trees, Euclea pseudebenus is a slow grower, but at the same time may become hundreds of years old. However, under cultivation it grows much quicker than it does in the wild and is well worth planting for its elegant drooping branches of narrow blue-green leaves, hanging like a skirt around the stem. Ebony trees usually have a single trunk, which may become up to 30cm in diameter, and it varies in height between 3 and 9 meters, depending on the prevailing climatic conditions. As it matures, it spreads out into an umbrella shape, so ensure you plant it well away from walls and buildings, where it will have space to spread.

In the wild it is easily recognisable by its greyish, rough bark, and in winter and spring, small, fragrant, cream-coloured flowers appear, followed in late summer by green fruits which turn black when ripe. Although small and not particularly tasty, the fruits are edible and are particularly relished by birds, baboons and antelope who all aid in the dispersal of seeds. The leaves are also browsed by antelope and domesticated livestock, such as goats and sheep. The tree also provides much needed shelter for insects, birds and mammals, especially in the summer months

Eco conscious gardeners who are concerned about water conservation are replacing exotic species in their gardens with indigenous trees like the beautiful ebony tree, not only because it makes sense to use our own plants wherever we can, but also because this tree attracts wildlife to the garden. It can even be pruned to keep it shrub-like.

In southern Africa the ebony family (Ebenaceae) is represented by two genera namely Euclea and Diospyros or “jackal-berry”. Translated, its Latin name Euclea means ‘good report’, which most likely refers to the good quality ebony-type wood of some Euclea species, and particularly Euclea pseudebenus. The species name pseudebenus means ‘false ebony’ and refers to the resemblance of the wood to the true ebony - an Indian tree species (Diospyros ebenus), famous its black timber which is used for carpentry. The wood of Euclea pseudebenus is used as firewood and to make furniture, wood carvings, chess boards and furniture.   

This tree loves full sun and thrives in the summer and winter rainfall regions of South Africa. It is best planted in spring or early summer, in order to settle the plant before winter.  Although this tree is very drought resistant, young saplings should be watered well about once a week during summer to encourage good root and shoot growth. However, be careful not to overwater as the trees do not like ‘wet feet’. Some compost and a dressing of bone meal will also get it off to a good start. Young plants are also vulnerable to frost, so cover them up for the first winter or two until they are well established.

The ebony tree is grown from seeds which must be allowed to ripen completely after the fruits have blackened and have fallen to the ground. Remove any remaining pulp from the seeds and then soak them in warm water overnight, the viable seeds will sink to the bottom and the non-viable seeds will float to the top. The fertile seeds are then soaked again overnight in hot water before being sown into a sandy loam soil mixture of: 1 part coarse river sand, mixed with 1 part fine milled bark and 1 part decomposed compost or loam. Press the seeds into the soil and lightly cover with soil to about the size of the seeds. Seed can be sown throughout the year, but the best results are obtained from autumn to spring. Do not plant small seedling out too soon, rather harden them off for two seasons, and because the tree has a taproot, it is best to plant the young trees out into a permanent position which does not require the plants to be moved at a later stage.