When I see birds and monkeys enjoying these purple berries, I invariably think of the song “Wooden Ships”. The link between the Waterberry tree (commonly referred to by its Zulu name umDoni) and the song is purple berries.

The berries of the umDoni (Syzygium cordatum) are enjoyed by many birds, including the Purple-crested Turaco (pictured above) and many animals, including the Vervet Monkey, and people eat the berries too and use them to make wine.

In the song “Wooden Ships”, war survivors from different sides meet and share some purple berries, before escaping the war by sailing off in wooden ships.

Say can I have some of your purple berries?

Yes, I’ve been eating them

For six or seven weeks now haven’t got sick once

Probably keep us both alive

Wooden ships on the water very free and easy

(From http://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/woodenships)

Coincidentally, not only does the umDoni tree have purple berries, but its wood is used to build wooden boats and canoes. Even if the connection is a bit tenuous, “Wooden Ships” is a great song! From way back in 1969, it was co-written by David Crosby, Steven Stills and Paul Kantner (of Jefferson Airplane). The band Crosby, Stills and Nash and the band Jefferson Airplane each released versions of the song on separate records in 1969, and each band performed their version of the song at Woodstock, also in 1969.

Vervet Monkey eating berries in umDoni treeA vervet monkey carefully selecting ripe purple berries on the umDoni tree (Syzygium cordatum) in our garden. Four species of Syzygium occur in the KwaZulu-Natal region, and according to Pooley they appear to hybridise in the wild. They belong to the Eucalyptus family

The umDoni occurs naturally near water and in riverine forests. It can survive periods of waterlogging and is sometimes planted to stabilise river banks and it is used as a shade tree on farms. Its nectar-laden pale flowers with fluffy stamens attract insects (which in turn attract insectivorous birds). The larvae of certain butterflies and moths feed on the leaves, and its purple berries feed not only arboreal animals, but in the wild, fallen fruits feed bushpigs and other animals.

Ukhamba Zulu basktThe bark of the umDoni tree is also used to make an orange or red-brown dye that is used to dye fibres used in basket-making. The berries are used to make a purple/mauve dye. The fibres (probably Ilala palm) in this tri-coloured Ukhamba-style basket from Zululand were coloured using plant-based dyes. This basket includes two colours that could have been derived from the umDoni 

In traditional medicine, the bark is used to make an emetic as well as medicine for stomach and respiratory problems. In addition to boatbuilding, the durable timber is also used for hut-building, for furniture and for more general use on farms. It is also used as firewood.


The colours of the Purple-crested Turaco (formerly known as the Purple-crested Lourie) tone beautifully with the purple berries of the umDoni 

The Purple-crested Turaco predominantly eats fruits, found by foraging in the tree canopy where it is an agile climber. It jumps from branch to branch in a style that can look to be clumsy. It occurs in woodland and coastal forest in the eastern regions of southern Africa and northwards to Tanzania and Uganda. It is even more striking in flight, revealing bright scarlet flight feathers. It has a repetitive rising kok-kok-kok almost raucous call. It is adapting to suburban gardens. Last year a pair nested in our neighbour’s (exotic) Jacaranda tree.

Vervet Monkey foraging in umDoni tree

Individual vervet monkeys often end up sporting purplish “lipstick” after a session of serious berry eating

Monkeys take great care when foraging for the berries, picking only ripe berries to consume, which they seem to eat with relish, although the berries are rather sour. Some monkeys store the berries in their cheek pouches to eat later. Vervet monkeys occur in regions across a range of habitats in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.


This baby monkey is still dependant on its mother. She allows it to climb around in the tree close to her while she eats berries. Perhaps I should add that when watching monkeys in the garden, I keep my distance and do not encourage familiarity. This picture was taken using a zoom lens from inside the house through a window.

It is important never to feed monkeys directly or to tempt them to come into the house looking for food. Encouraging close proximity so that monkeys start losing their fear of approaching people leads to conflict that is usually detrimental to monkeys.

Our suburb borders onto commercial plantation where monkeys and other animals try to survive in the absence of more natural habitat. As we live on the edge of town in a zone frequented by monkeys, I do not have a problem with them using water in the birdbaths and foraging in the indigenous trees and shrubs. We do not plant fruit trees (other than a lemon tree).

Chasing monkeys in these zones on the edge of town seems a waste of time and energy and creates tension and hostility. And anyway, as monkeys are observant, they will return when one is not around to chase them. They are resilient and sometimes they are desperate. Rather than chase them, it seems more practical to secure the house so they cannot come indoors (we have mesh on our windows and we do not leave food out in plain sight next to windows), and if you have a vegetable patch then, if you can afford it, fence it with monkey-proof fencing. I have heard of people installing movement-triggered sprinklers to protect vegetable patches, but even though monkeys hate being sprayed with water, I have not heard whether such sprinklers are a sufficient deterrent.

In my view, it is irrational to expect monkeys to change their natural food-seeking behaviours. We think that we are smarter than monkeys, so then we need to adapt to reduce conflict and avoid the persecution of yet another species of wild animal whose numbers are in fact dwindling as they lose their habitat.

Posted by Carol



Elsa Pooley. 1997. The Complete Field Guide to Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust;   Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa.  Pretoria: Briza;   Fanie and Julye-Ann Venter. 1996. Making the Most of Indigenous Trees. Pretoria: Briza;   Biodiversity Explorer: Gallirex porphyreolophus (Purple-crested turaco, Purple-crested lourie) http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/birds/musophagidae/gallirex_porphyreolophus.htm

Pooley Trees Thumbnail  Book cover People's Plants  indigenous-trees-venter-thumbnail