The distinctive profile, longevity, and utility of the African baobab tree has made it an icon of the continent. It shows up in literature as a symbol of shelter, of plenty, and of productivity. Which is why it is a subject worthy of your curiosity.
Here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about the African baobab tree, from its mythology to its medicinal uses.
At any vitamin shop, you’ll likely find an entire section of aromatherapy products and chances are these will include pure baobab oil from the wild-growing African baobab tree. Baobab is valued for nutritious, skin-protecting oil which has a rich, slippery texture. People use it as a body or skin care oil, a nourishing hair and scalp massage or to soften and moisturize dry skin.
Baobab fruit, known as monkey bread, is edible, and full of vitamin C.
The fruit has been described in various ways: with a velvety shell and about the size of a coconut, covered with a yellowish brown hairs, and having a hard, woody outer shell. It weighs about 1.4 kilograms (3.2 pounds).
It has a dry, powdery substance inside that covers hard, black, kidney-shaped seeds. The off-white, powdery substance is rich in ascorbic acid, a naturally occurring organic compound with antioxidant properties. When soaked in water, this white powdery substance produces a refreshing drink somewhat like lemonade. It has a somewhat acidic flavor, described as something between grapefruit, pear, and vanilla. This drink is used to treat fevers and other ailments. This tree grows slowly, mainly due to low rainfall it receives.
A tree with many names
The baobab is also known as cream of tartar tree, monkey-bread tree, lemonade tree and the upside down tree. The branches look more like a root system that is in the air and the tree trunk just appears upside down. Leaves bloom for only a short time of the year. It is regarded as the largest succulent plant in the world. There is much mystique and superstition whenever baobabs grow in Africa.
In Madagascar where the per capita income is $458 per year, the baobab fruit is a source of food. In 2012, the population of Madagascar was estimated at just over 22 million, 90 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day.
Rainwater often collects in the clefts of the large branches, and travelers and local people often use this valuable source of water. It has been recorded that in some cases the center of the tree is purposely hollowed out to serve as a reservoir for water during the rainy season. One such reservoir was recorded as holding 4,546 liters of water. A hole is drilled in the trunk and a plug inserted so that water can be easily retrieved by removing the plug. The roots of the baobab can also be tapped for water.
The massive, usually squat cylindrical trunk gives rise to thick-tapering branches resembling a root system, which is why it has often been referred to as the upside-down tree. According to African mythology, God planted them upside down. Some Africans believe the baobab actually grows upside down.
The stem is covered with a bark layer that may be 50-to-100 millimeters (two-to-four inches) thick. The bark is grayish brown and normally smooth but can often be folded and seamed from years of growth. The leaves are hand-sized and divided into five-to-seven finger-like leaflets.
The baobab tree is known as the tree of life. It can provide shelter, clothing, food, and water for animals and humans. The cork-like bark and huge stem are fire resistant and are used for making cloth and rope. The leaves are used as condiments and medicines.
Being deciduous, the leaves fall in winter and appear again in late spring or early summer.
The large flowers measure up to 200 millimeters wide (eight inches) and are white and sweetly scented. They emerge in the late afternoon from large round buds on long drooping stalks from October to December. The flowers fall within 24 hours, turning brown and smelling unpleasant. Pollination by fruit bats takes place at night.
Where they grow
In Africa the baobab’s distribution is associated with rainfall. It’s found in areas of Senegal, Madagascar, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and other tropical African countries where suitable habitat occurs. Baobabs’ likes and dislikes are pretty specific. They grow in hot, dry, frost-free woodland areas with low rainfall on stony, well-drained soil.
They may be cultivated in areas of higher rainfall provided the area has warm winters and never gets frost.
In mainland Africa, the baobab family has a number of different baobab-type trees of the genus adansonia. There’s one species in Australia and four species native to Madagascar. The most spectacular, A. grandidieri, grows to 40 meters (131 feet) tall, only bearing branches at the very top of the tall, thick trunk.
Fallen baobab flowers are relished by wild animals and cattle. When baobab wood is chewed, it provides vital moisture to relieve thirst. Humans and animals eat baobab wood in times of drought.
The leaves are said to be rich in vitamin C, sugars, potassium tartrate, and calcium. They are cooked fresh as a vegetable or dried and crushed for use later. The sprout of a young tree can be eaten like asparagus. The root of very young trees is also edible, as are the seeds.
Seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Caterpillars which feed on baobab leaves are collected and eaten by African people as an important source of protein. Wild animals eat the fallen and fresh leaves. Baobab leaves are said to be good fodder for domestic animals.
Baobab in your garden
They will make a good addition to a very large garden, estate, or park providing the soil drains well. Baobabs cannot tolerate even mild frost. When they are young, baobabs do not resemble adult baobabs. The stems are thin and inconspicuous, and the leaves are simple and not divided into the five-to-seven lobes of the adult trees.
Saplings can be grown in containers or tubs for years before they get too big and need to be planted in the ground. In cold climates they can be kept in greenhouses or indoors behind a sunny window to prevent frost damage.
Companies doing business in baobab
The baobab fruit is a wild-harvested super fruit that nurtures local communities by providing sustainable income for women in Southern Africa and protection of the ancient trees.
In Senegal, two companies that do business in baobab trees include Frontier
and Aura Cacia. Both work with co-ops.
Bonga’s all-natural Superfood Chews are made from organic baobab powder and fruit purées.
Famous South African baobab trees
The Sagole Baobab is recorded as being the biggest tree in South Africa with a stem diameter of 10.47 meters, a height of 22 meters and a crown spread of 38.2 meters. It grows east of Tshipise.
The Glencoe Baobab near Hoedspruit is probably the second largest and has several trunks. It has a stem diameter of 15.9 meters, a height of 17 meters and a crown spread of 37.05 meters. This tree has dates carved on the stem from 1893 and 1896.
The Platland Baobab that grows near Duiwelskloof houses a pub. It has a stem diameter of 10.64 meters, a height of 19 meters, and a crown spread of 30.2 meters.
What baobabs have been used for
Large baobab trees with hollow trunks have been used by people for centuries for various purposes including as bus stops, prisons, houses, pubs and storage barns. A big tree in South Africa is recorded as once being used as a dairy.
Another tree near Leydsdorp was used as a bar known as the Murchison Club. Prospectors and miners used it during the gold rush in the late 18oos. One baobab in the Caprivi Strip was converted into a toilet, complete with a flushing system.
African honey bees often make hives in baobab hollows. A ladder of pegs is often hammered into the trunk by honey harvesters to access the hives.