No other African tree is shrouded in so many stories and legends as the Baobab tree. Famous for its peculiar look, the Baobab tree is a common feature looming over the dry savannah of Sub Saharan Africa and a grand representative of African flora.
Facts of the Baobab tree
Worldwide there are 8 species of Baobab, of which the Adansonia Digitata is the only species native to the African mainland. Of the other types 6 are found in Madagascar and 1 in Australia.
The Baobab of the African mainland (Adansonia Digitata) is the largest species and can reach heights of up to 25 metres. The width varies a lot, some of them can grow to huge dimensions. The largest baobab tree was measured 47 meters in circumference before it split in two and can be visited in the Limpopo province in South Africa.
The tree is known under a great range of names like Monkey Bread tree, Upside down tree, Cream of Tartar tree and Bottle tree. The trunk of the tree is smooth and has a pinkish grey colour, with a soft, shiny and fibrous bark.
During around 9 months of the year (mainly dry season), the tree is bare of leaves. As opposed to the massive trunk, the branches appear like a wispy network of thin balding branches, resembling a complicated root system. Due to this distinctive look, the Baobab tree is often named the “upside down” tree.
In late spring, early summer, the leaves appear again making the tree almost unrecognisable. The first time I saw a Baobab tree, I could hardly believe the transformation. For me it was hardly recognisable, with thick, large green leaves, white flowers and long green fruits.
In fact the tree is like a large giant succulent, with a huge trunk that can store up to 120.000 litres of water, depending on the size. Generally, a trunk consists of 80% water, making it very suitable to survive a very long dry season. The trunk does not have rings like other trees have, so it is nearly impossible to define the age. Also the size of the trunk can vary depending on the amount of water it holds throughout the year, where it shrinks during dry season and grows in rainy season holding more water. The only way to more or less define the age is by radio carbon dating, but even this is giving inaccurate results. One can say that the trees can grow very old, with an estimation of 1000 or even up to 3000 years.
Usage and people
The Baobab is highly regarded by African people, because most parts of the tree can be used in many different ways.
People use the fibers of the bark to make cloth, baskets, mats and ropes. The leaves can be boiled and eaten and the velvety green fruits adds flavour to a delicious diet. The fruit is very nutritious and contains a lot of vitamin C and A as well as tartaric acid. It can be cooked or made into a refreshing drink.
Not only for people, the Baobab is also very important for animals in the african bush. Animals like birds and fruit bats use the branches to hide or make their nests, elephants break off and eat the fibrous bark, bats and baboons love eating the fruits and snakes can hide in the hollow parts of the tree. Pollination occurs by fruit bats.
Elephants like to eat the bark of the tree, mainly during dry season in order to capture some of the moisture held by the tree. And since people also use the fibres of the bark often you’ll see the bark of the tree damaged. However, the Baobab is able to regrow a new bark and will remain growing, making the tree very difficult to kill.
When a Baobab dies, the fibres will start rotting from the inside hollowing out the bark. Until one day, the hollow tree will just collapse in a heap of fibre. This process appears to happen very suddenly since the rotting process is not always noticeable from the outside.
For some of the bigger trees which were hollowed out, people have found very creative ways for using that open space, as a shelter, prison, bar, shop or just a hideout.
Legends and mysteries
There are many legends and stories told locally about the baobab tree and its appearance. Some of these stories are similar but told slightly differently depending on the source. I will just mention some of the ones we have heard over the years.
The small Baobab trees have a very different look to the “adult” Baobab as we know them. They kind of look like a usual small tree. For this reason, the bushman people used to believe that the “adult” Baobab does not grow, but it just crashes on the ground fully grown. And when a Baobab dies, it just appears to collapse from one day to another, due to the rotting process in the inside of the tree which is why the Bushman see the Baobab as a magical tree.
An African proverb says:
Wisdom is like a baobab tree, no one individual can embrace it
Another legend is that many years ago, when animals and people were created, God gave each of them a tree. The hyena came last and was given the baobab tree. He was not pleased by this and out of spite planted the tree upside down with the roots sticking out from the top. Another version tells that the hyena was late and only the Baobab tree was left to distribute as nobody else wanted this tree. Full with anger, the hyena planted the tree upside down.
Like this there are many stories told around the african campfires, each with its own truth as well as mystery. One thing is for sure, the tree is fully integrated into African culture, plays an important part for people as well as animals and continues to intrigue many tourists visiting Africa.