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Baobabs Adansonia digitata

Baobabs Adansonia digitata

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Baobabs, Adansonia digitata

“I pointed out to the little prince that baobabs were not little bushes, but, on the contrary, trees as big as castles.” The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The name ‘baobab’ is thought to come from the Egyptian ‘bu hubob, the fruit with many seeds.’ In 1592 the Venetian herbalist and physician Prospero Alpino wrote that this fruit, available in the markets in Cairo though not grown naturally in Egypt, was unknown to the merchants, so called it ‘bu hubob’.

In 1753 Carl Linneaus formerly named the African baobab as Adansonia digitata, honouring a French surgeon Michel Adanson who described the tree, with detailed illustrations, when he travelled in Senegal between 1749 and 1753. Digitata refers to the leaves that are spread out like a hand.

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One of the earliest written references to baobab trees comes from the Arab traveller al-Bakri who wrote in 1068 he had seen them in Ghana. Another Arab, the explorer Ibn Battuta , wrote in 1352 about a weaver who nested in a baobab tree in Mali. He also said the pulp of the fruit could be cooked and eaten.

There are eight species of baobabs in the world; one in Australia, seven in Madagascar one of which is the Adansonia digatata introduced from Africa.

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The Adansonia digitata, grown in 32 countries across Africa, are deciduous trees, losing their leaves during the dry months. They are found growing in belts across semi-arid areas. In some regions there are large unpopulated areas between belts of growth. These iconic trees can grow at sea-level, though prefer altitudes of 450m–600m and have been found as high as 1250m in the Sudan. Sometimes seen solitary, a wonderful sight is a small group or forest of baobabs.

The roots of mature baobabs spread out laterally, often to a distance greater than their height, which facilitates them absorbing water quickly when rain does fall. The leaf stomates will close to prevent moisture loss in dry weather. Sometimes the trees are totally bare of leaves depending on rainfall and climate. While they have the ability to control water loss through their leaves, they do lose water causing their spongy trunks to shrink. The chlorophyll in the bark enables the tree to grow even without leaves. The wood of the baobab is approximately 60–70% water attracting elephants to tear off parts of the trunk to obtain moisture, but smaller scars can, and do, re-grow.

The flower buds look crumpled, with white petals roughly the same width and length up to 8 cms, that open during the late afternoon, staying open and fertile for only one night. After about 24 hours the white petals begin to brown and the flowers lose their sweet scent, the smell becoming rather unpleasant. They are propagated mostly by bats.

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The size and shape of the fruit, often known as cream-of-tarter differ between regions. Angola is said to have the longest fruit whilst some countries such as Botswana have more globular shaped fruit. They are nutritious with a fairly high content of calcium, magnesium and potassium and three times more Vitamin C than an orange. The leaves, seeds and pulp of the inside of the hard husks can be eaten raw or cooked. Roasted the seeds produced a type of coffee for pioneers and explorers.

Though the baobab is not the tallest trees in Africa, baobabs definitely have the widest girth. There is a published record of baobabs having a girth of 45m, though up to 25m is more common. The massive hollow trunks have been used as a prison, chapel, a pub for 15 people, post office, kitchen, overnight accommodation for men together with their horses, and now even a modern toilet with a door!

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Red-billed buffalo weavers nesting in the Baobab branches

Baobabs can live for a very long time due to their ability to sprout new stems. The Panke Baobab in Zimbabwe that died in 2011 was carbon dated to be 2,450 years old making it the oldest recorded fruit and flowering plant. The Dorslandboom in Namibia and Glencoe in South Africa are estimated to be 2,000 years old.

Among the best known baobabs in southern Africa are the Baines Baobabs immortalised by the artist and explorer Thomas Baines, at the Nxai Pans, Makgadikgadi, Botswana; and the Big Tree in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Followed, surely, by the two ‘Wee Wee’ baobabs at the fork of the road between Makuti and Kariba, Zimbabwe, on the way to Zambia.

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The Muri kungulwa–The Tree That Roars-close to the Pafuri Gate, Kruger National Park, is said to be the second thickest tree in the world at 22 metres high and 46 metres in circumference, the largest being a cypress in Mexico.

There are so many fascinating legends and myths surrounding the ancient baobabs, each country and area having their own tales to tell. Was God cross with them for not accepting what they looked like when originally designed and threw them over his shoulder, landing roots up? Do they have mediums spirits living in them, sometimes as in Kenya beautiful girls? Do they have healing powers by just sitting under them? If you leave an offering of food under the tree will it bring rain? In the Bagwato area in Botswana people go and worship at baobabs, praying and dancing, sometimes beating a drum. It is also said that if you climb a baobab, it being difficult to climb back down, you go mad.

Should the opportunity come along to sit under a baobab, spend a night stargazing through its branches, or just gazed at it in awe; you will have experienced ancient Africa.

Image Credits: 1. Ian and Lesley Thomson, 2. Matthew Sterne, 3. Ian and Lesley Thomson, 4. Ian and Lesley Thomson, 5. Ian and Lesley Thomson, 6. Ian and Lesley Thomson