Baobabs are trees recognisable by their distinctive swollen stems.
There are nine species of baobab trees.
Of the nine species, six are native to Madagascar, two are native to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and one is native to Australia.
It was introduced in ancient times to south Asia and during the colonial era to the Caribbean.
Its natural habitat is hot, dry woodland on stony, well-drained soils, in areas that receive low rainfall.
The lifespan of the baobab is very long. It is difficult to age them without radio carbon dating as they don’t produce annual growth rings. There are many specimens over 1,000 years old. One in South Africa was dated at around 6,000 years old.
Baobabs reach heights of 5 to 30 meters (16 to 98 feet) and have trunk diameters of 7 to 11 meters (23 to 36 feet).
Its trunk can hold up to 120,000 liters (32,000 US gallons) of water which is an adaptation to the harsh drought conditions of its environment. The tree may be tapped in dry periods.
The cork-like bark is reddish brown to grey, soft and possesses longitudinal fibers. The bark is fire resistant and are used for making cloth and rope.
Leaves simple to digitate, with up to 9 green and glossy leaflets but usually 5. All baobab trees are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry season, and remains leafless for nine months of the year.
The leaves are an excellent source of protein, minerals and vitamins A and C. It is used as condiments and medicines.
During the early summer (October to December in southern hemisphere) the tree bears very large, heavy, white flowers. These are 12 cm (4.7 in) across and open during the late afternoon to stay open for one night. The pendulous, showy flowers have a very large number of stamens. They have a sweet scent but later emit a carrion smell, especially when they turn brown and fall after 24 hours.
The tree’s fruits are large pods known as ‘monkey bread’ or ‘cream of tartar fruit’ and are rich in vitamin C. The fruit has a velvety shell and is about the size of a coconut, weighing about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb). It has a somewhat acidic flavour, described as ‘somewhere between grapefruit, pear, and vanilla‘.
The Glencoe baobab, a specimen of A. digitata in South Africa, was considered to be the largest living individual, with a maximum circumference of 47 m (154 ft) and a diameter of about 15.9 m (52 ft). The height is 17 m (56 ft), and the spread of crown is 37.05 m (121.6 ft). In November 2009 the tree split in two parts.
So the widest individual trunk may now be that of the Sunland baobab, also in South Africa. The diameter of this tree at ground level is 9.3 m (31 ft) and its circumference at breast height is 34 m (112 ft). In 1993 artifacts of Bushmen and first white settlers were found in the hollows of the Baobab when the farm’s owners cleaned out the tree. This tree became a popular tourist attraction
after 1993 when the owners of Sunland farm established a bar and wine cellar in its hollow trunk.
It is not unusual for old baobabs to become hollow inside with increasing age. The niches and caves have served humans and animals alike for many thousands of years. People used the tree for protection, shelter and even housing. They took advantage of the cavities as storage facilities, to protect their livestock, to hide during enemy attacks or to defend themselves.
The baobab tree is known as the tree of life, with good reason. It can provide shelter, clothing, food, and water for the animal and human inhabitants of the African savannah regions.
Adansonia digitata native to the African continent is the most widespread of all baobab species.
The baobab is the national tree of Madagascar.
Adansonia grandidieri, sometimes known as Grandidier’s baobab, is the biggest and most famous of Madagascar’s six species of baobabs. They can reach 25 to 30 m (82 to 98 ft) in height.
The African and Australian baobabs are almost identical despite having separated more than 100 million years ago, probably by oceanic dispersal.
Elephants like to eat the bark of the baobab during the dry season to obtain moisture from the trunk’s reserves. The Baobab does not suffer from ring barking and can regrow bark if damaged by elephants.
Baobabs are important as nest sites for birds, in particular the mottled spinetail and four species of weaver.
Along the Zambezi, the tribes believe that baobabs were upright and too proud. The gods became angry and uprooted them and threw them back into the ground upside-down. Evil spirits now cause bad luck to anyone that picks up the sweet white flowers. More specifically, a lion will kill them.
In contrast, some people think that if one drinks from water in which baobab seeds have soaked, you will be safe from crocodile attacks.
The African bushman legend states that Thora, the god, took a dislike to the baobab growing in his garden. Therefore, he threw it over the wall of Paradise onto the Earth below. The tree landed upside down and continued to grow.
An Arabian legend has it that “the devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth, and left its roots in the air.”