Tree profile: Jackal-berry

Lab Note #11
Jun 25, 2014
  Jackal-berry, the evergreen tree

Scientific name: Diospyros mespiliformis
Diospyros: Greek for 'divine pear';    Mespiliformis: mesos = half + pilos = bullet, referring to the shape of the fruit.
Family: Ebony family (Ebenaceae) 
Indigenous names: Jakkalsbessie (Afrikaans), Motlouma, Dithetlwa (North Sotho), umToma (Siswati); Ntoma, Mgula (Tsonga), Musuma (Venda)

Jackal-berry is one of those species that has wormed its way into my heart through sheer force of character. I had a lot of trouble finding and identifying the tree during my first field season, which is ironic considering I was sampling in the dry season and jackal-berry is literally one of the only savanna trees to keep its leaves year round. (I learned to identify many of my first trees through unusual branching patterns or uniquely-shaped profiles. When I came back during the growing season I had trouble recognizing the trees at first because all the leaves were getting in the way). Jackal-berry is a tree of many forms and faces. In the high dry regions it forms a bushy shrub-like plant, its top crowned with bright red leaves. In the wetter riverine areas it forms a tree of truly goliath proportions, one of those forest giants that you might expect Tarzan to come leaping out of.

And Tarzan wouldn't be the only one.

Jackal-berry also has the distinction of being an all-around nice guy of a tree. Its the tree you gather around at Christmas parties or who offers you a friendly ear and a shoulder to cry on. One might even go so far as to say it has maternal qualities. I mean, take a look at this jackal-berry sheltering a wedding reception...

Such a nice tree.

Ahem, but speaking as a scientist and a ecologist it is of course ridiculous, nay dangerous to anthropomorphize a tree in such a fashion, so let us now dispense with such foolishness and return to the business at hand.

Jackal-berry is a fruit bearing tree, with both fruit and seed being edible to humans (and of course a large variety of other animals as well). Nurses in South Africa joke that they always know when the jackal-berries are ripe because all the little boys start coming in with broken arms (the little boys will attest that jackal-berries are well worth the risk). In terms of flavor, the berries have a sweet but acidic taste, with a slight lemon-like flavor. I would like to say I speak from experience but the only berry I've eaten was woefully premature (as I have no idea what a ripe jackal-berry looks like), and the numbing bitter taste prompted me to spit it out all over myself and my field assistant. The seed tastes nutty (as one might expect). 


In detailing its uses it might be easier to list what it's not used for. The fruit is eaten raw, as mentioned, but can also be dried or ground up into porridge or mealie meal. The wood finds its way into pretty much everything, and the gum can be used to mend pottery. The fruit pulp (when not being eaten by small children) is also used as a glaze and varnish. Medicinally, parts of the tree can also be used to treat pretty much everything; most notably jaundice, pains of childbirth, malaria, leprosy, whooping cough and, well, the list goes on.


The viability of seeds is quite high, so you are likely to get successful germination with even a small number of seeds. To germinate, pour boiling water over the seeds and leave overnight. The seeds should be planted the following morning. Transplant to the permanent growing location once the seedling reaches the 3-leaf stage. Because they are slow growing initially, especially in shallow soils, this would be a good candidate for an indoor potted plant. The root system is not aggressive and the tree can be planted near streets and buildings. 

Jackal-berry can also make a stunning bonsai.

  1. Making the most of Indigenous Trees, Fanie and Julye-Anne Venter
  2. Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park, Ernst Schmidt, Mervyn Lotter and Warren McClealand
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