Old, Bold and Big
by Gordon Ferguson
One of the most dramatic statements on the horizon of Southern Africa is made by a tree - the baobab. Looking more like a cartoon drawing than a real-life object, the baobab is an exceptional member of the plant kingdom in more ways than one. Its trunk size is overwhelming. This tree is not just big or enormous, it’s beyond gigantic - it’s colossal. This is a tree with more than a XXX LARGE tag. In Zimbabwe one hollow specimen can provide shelter for up to 40 people. For compassionate treelovers this giant needs a team of many people linking arms around the trunk to give it a good, old-fashioned hug. In Southern Africa you’ll find baobabs with stems of up to 8 meters in diameter and 28 meters in circumference.
The botanical name, Adansonia digitata comes from a man called Michel Adanson who saw one of these trees for the first time in Senegal in the 18th century. The digital, finger-like leaves account for the species name, digitata. Most people use the common name, baobab, which probably has its origin in the words ‘bu hobab’, an adaptation of the Arabic term ‘bu hibab’ meaning ‘fruit with many seeds’. The San people have called this ‘the upside-down tree’ because the branches look more like the tree’s roots. It is often called the monkey bread tree in reference to the fruit which is enjoyed by monkeys, while the 19th century explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, described it as ‘that giant, upturned carrot’.
Our more contemporary cartoon description of this tree is equally valid. It is almost like a caricature of a posing bodybuilder with more than just one pair of muscular arms. The trunk is stocky and the branches reaching to the sky seem to ripple with flexed power. The texture and color of the bark is also unusual for a tree. It has a smooth surface and it is pinkish, pinkish-grey and sometimes coppery in color.
The prehistoric appearance of the average baobab tells you that this is a tree that ‘goes back a few years’ - anything up to 1 000 years, sometimes more. According to scientific dating methods many particularly massive baobabs have had their date of germination estimated to be before the birth of Christ. The fruit of the baobab was apparently available in herb and spice markets as long ago as 2 500 BC while some ancient specimens are believed to be up to 3 000 years old.
In Southern Africa baobabs grow in poor, shallow soils in very hot, dry conditions at low altitudes. Well prepared for frequent droughts, the baobab effectively stores large volumes of water in its thick, corky and fire-resistant trunk. In extremely dry seasons the trunk may shrink as less water is available for storage. What water there is in the stem during droughts is often extracted by elephants which poke holes in the tree with their tusks and suck out the water with their trunks.
This is a leafless tree for about nine months of the year. When the baobab finally has a flush of green foliage some of the
leaves are plucked by local communities to make soup, condiments and medicines. With so many years of life ahead of it the baobab really takes its time to blossom. This tree only comes into flower at about the age of 20. But the large white flowers of the baobab are pollinated within hours of opening. Appearing just before nightfall the flowers, which are luminous in the dark, attract fruit bats, bush babies and nocturnal insects. As they suck the nectar and move from one flower to the next these creatures effectively and very quickly carry out the process of pollination.
The fruit of the baobab looks like a small, light-green or yellowish- grey version of a rugby ball. Inside this hairy, velvety, ovoid pod a white powder, commonly called cream of tartar, surrounds several seeds. The fruit of the baobab is very popular amongst local inhabitants, both human and animal. It is a valuable food for baboons, monkeys, antelope and elephants. The seeds are often crushed by rural people and drunk as a substitute for coffee, while the cream of tartar is used for baking. The fibrous bark of the baobab is sometimes used by local folk to make baskets, nets, ropes, floor mats and even paper.
Holes in the trunk of a baobab provide ideal nesting sites for all sorts of birds - rollers, hornbills, kestrels and barn owls. Even the large ground hornbill can find a place to rent in a baobab. Eagles, vultures and storks find the branches of a baobab useful platforms to build nests of stacked sticks. And, if there is a colony of nests in a baobab it probably belongs to a crowd of buffalo weavers.
Looking more like a mammoth cartoon figure than a tree, the baobab doesn’t seem to belong to this millennium or this world. But it does - and it offers more than its fair share to provide shade, shelter, water and food for all sorts of mammals, birds, insects and people.
Reproduced with friendly permission of Parinari Investments (Pvt) Ltd. From the April 2006 Newsletter “Wild Heritage Africa”.
Baobab Forest in Madagascar