The jackalberry tree, also known as the African ebony tree, grows on hot savanna grasslands and in woods in Africa. The name comes from the seeds of the jackalberry fruit, which are often found in jackal dung. Jackalberry trees provide an important source of food for people, wildlife and birds, while also offering a beautiful wood used for household goods and medicine.
Jackalberry trees grow on termite mounds in the African savannas, also known as tropical grasslands. They grow from Senegal and the Sudan to Namibia and the northern Transvaal. The climate in these regions is hot year-round. Rain falls during a six- to eight-month period, then the savanna stays dry for several months, often resulting in drought. The termite mound surrounding a jackalberry tree helps moisturize the tree and provide it with aerated soil. Termites never eat the wood of a jackalberry tree.
A member of the Ebenaceae family, jackalberry trees can grow up to 80 feet in height, although most of the trees grow to about 15 to 18 tall, according to officials at Kruger National Park in South Africa. The straight, deeply grooved trunks of the largest trees grow up to 18 feet in diameter and have dark-brown bark that turns gray as the tree gets older.
Spreading branches grow at the tops of the trees, with long leaves reaching up to more than 5 inches long and 3 inches wide. Young jackalberry trees do not lose their leaves, but as they grow older, they shed their leaves in the spring. New pinkish-orange leaves start growing almost immediately. Small, fragrant, white flowers grow on both male and female trees during the rainy season.
Only female jackalberry trees produce fruit that has a lemon flavor and a chalk-like consistency. . The oval fruit reaches 1 inch in diameter and is yellowish green. Five sepals from the flowers remain on the fruit. Two to six seeds grow inside each fruit. The fruits are eaten fresh, preserved or ground into flour.
Fruits from the jackalberry tree provide a food source for a variety of animals and birds. Impalas, warthogs, baboons and hornbills flock to the fruits. Other animals, including giraffes, elephants and rhinoceros, eat the leaves of the tree. The bushveld emperor butterfly also relies on the leaves as an important food source.
Varying in color from a light, reddish brown to almost black, jackalberry wood is highly resistant against termites. People use the hard, strong heartwood to make floors and furniture, while the trunk is used to make canoes. Tannin found in the leaves, bark and roots works helps stop bleeding. According to the University of Pretoria, a potion made from the roots of the jackalberry tree is said to rid people of ringworm, fever and dysentery.