Any image of the African savannah likely brings to mind the unassailable image of the Baobab Tree. Although you may not know it by name, or by the scientific genus Adansonia, the unmistakable profile on the horizon is identifiable.
The Baobab looks like Mother Nature got a sense of humor and planted it upside down with leafless branches that emulate roots jutting out to the sides during the dry season. The massive trunk can grow to 23-36 feet in diameter while it towers over nearby foliage at heights maxing out around 98 feet. The largest recorded example grew to a circumference of 154 feet before eventually splitting into two under the weight.
In addition to the unique look of the tree, other features distinguish it from related deciduous plants. The whitish-colored flowers of the Baobab open only at night during the cooler temperatures, which allows access to nectar for night hunters. Also, the trunk retains high quantities of water during the wet season, storing it for needed consumption and growth during the dry months.
As of 2018 there are nine recognized species of the Baobab. Of those, five are indigenous to Madagascar and one more was successfully introduced to the island, two live in mainland Africa and Arabia, and one calls Australia home.
To say the Baobab is an ancient tree is an understatement. Because faint tree rings are not a reliable record of age, scientists are a bit befuddled by their actual life span. However, in comparison to entire species that have been around for thousands of years, carbon dating has identified single living Baobab trees aged over 2,000 years, with some estimates pushing that number closer to 3,000 years old. That’s a tree with some stories to tell.
For a tree with a history of recovery even after a fire or stripping of the bark, the Baobab has proven to be a difficult tree to kill off. Although it has been dubbed the “Tree of Life,” scientists have seen a disturbing die off in recent years. They have not identified a certain cause, but the best theories attribute the decline to global warming and climate change.
The growth of the Baobab begins with a single stem, over time multiple stems develop to feed, hydrate, and support the tree. The reasons for, and resulting capabilities, of this unique growth pattern is somewhat disputed in the scientific community and for a species that is thousands of years old, the one thing that scientists do seem to agree on is that they know relatively little about the plant.
Baobab trees fall into the angiosperm category, which means they are a flowering plant. Inasmuch, generations of humans have learned a variety of uses for the Baobab. The coconut-sized fruit is edible and a good source of phosphorus, vitamin C, potassium, and carbohydrates. After naturally drying on the tree for more than six months, the fruit is harvested and the pulp is turned into a powder attributed with the nutritional benefits of consistent energy release and moderating sugar levels. The leaves, only available during the wet season, can be eaten dried or boiled. Seeds from the fruit pods are commonly used in the making of vegetable oil and cosmetics. A common kitchen ingredient, Cream of Tartar, was originally sourced from the Baobab tree as well.
In addition to being a food source, the Baobab tree provides a soft, nearly shimmering pinkish or copper-colored bark that can be turned into useful fibers such as rope and cloth and also used to make hunting and fishing tools, mats, baskets, and paper. Additionally, the pollen can be turned into glue.
Because of the massive size, the Baobab has also been used for shelter. After all, a hollowed out base is a welcome reprieve from the harsh African sun. But resourceful homesteaders and business owners have reportedly turned available trees into “buildings” such as a shop, a storage barn, a bus stop shelter, a prison, a house, and even a bar.
The Baobab tree is called the tree of life for another reason too with a long history of medicinal uses. Although more studies are required to achieve a complete understanding of the effectiveness, the bark, leaves, fruit, and seeds are credited with treating a range of ailments including malaria, tuberculosis, fever, infections, diarrhea, anemia, toothache, intestinal distress, asthma, and dysentery.
As an important part of the ecosystem, the Baobab tree provides habitat for several types of birds that house their nests in the gnarly branches. Baboons eat the available fruit, bats drink the nectar, and myriad small creatures rely on the tree as well. Due to the water-storage capabilities, elephants also rely on the bark as a source of hydration during drought.
The Baobab tree is a testament to longevity in a harsh environment. Enduring centuries of abuse from nature, animals, and humans alike, it continues to provide useful food and materials, wonder to the African skyline, and mystery to the scientific community.