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What is it about baobab trees that makes them so captivating?

Few trees inhabit the human imagination quite as the baobabs do. Simultaneously majestic and comically Seussian in form, the eight species of baobab have been attributed to the work of gods, devils, and even hyenas in the mythos of Africa.

Objects of reverence and superstition as well as prosaic providers of food, shelter, and water, these bizarre trees of the family Malvaceae have captivated human observers for millennia. Related to hibiscus, cotton, and the familiar garden hollyhocks, they tower over their herbaceous cousins and are the tallest living angiosperms.

Some specimens of the African mainland species Adansonia digitata approach heights of 100 feet. Their bulbous, water-storing trunks, adapted to the harsh, arid climates to which they are native, may exceed 100 feet in circumference in some ancient individuals. Individual trees are estimated to have lived for more than 2,450 years per radiocarbon dating studies; even more conservative estimates place specimens at up to 800 years old.

These “wooden elephants” have long provided succor to the people sharing their range. Their fruits, which are encased in a woody shell, provide a powdery pulp that is a dietary staple for many Africans. This pulp is highly nutritious and contains appreciable amounts of vitamin C, calcium, iron, and magnesium. It may be eaten plain or, more commonly, is mixed into a drink or added to other dishes. The large, hard seeds can be either roasted or fermented and are used as a food or flavoring, or rendered into an oil that has cosmetic applications.

Humans aren’t the only primates to enjoy baobab fruits; their consumption by baboons has led to the moniker “monkey bread.” The leaves, also laden with nutrients, are consumed in salads or dried and mixed with grains. Their salutary properties may in fact lend credence to the myth that women who live near baobab trees are more fertile. The tuberous ends of the roots and even the bark and flowers can be eaten as well.

Image Credit: By Dennis van de Water

Baobab bark fiber is used in the manufacture of rope and baskets and the spongy, porous wood is burned for fuel. On the basis of this remarkable versatility, recent research has proposed the baobab as a candidate for formal domestication and agriculture. Wild specimens have long-sustained African peoples and the tree has been informally cultivated for centuries. The so-called “superfood” qualities of its fruit and leaves, assigned due to their high concentrations of nutrients, have also attracted interest in exporting them.

Humans are hardly the only species to benefit from the baobab. The flowers nourish bats and insects, the fruits feed birds, monkeys, and other creatures, and the bark and leaves are enjoyed by elephants, which may strip the trees, which usually nonetheless rebound. Numerous species make their homes in baobabs as well; in the oft-barren savannahs, they are oases, providing food, shelter, and ever-valuable water.

Indeed, the hollow trunks of some aged specimens were historically used by traders and other travelers as water reservoirs. Patterns of human settlement have been mapped to baobab distribution, suggesting either that humans gravitated to these towering sources of sustenance or that they actively transported the seeds or young plants as they dispersed.

These unique trees are thought to have originated in Madagascar, home to six of the eight known species, including A. grandidieri, A. madagascariensis, A. perrieri, A. rubrostipa, A. suarezensis, and A. za. A. digitata of mainland Africa and the single Australian species, A. gibbosa, are believed to have evolved from the Malagasy species. (It has been argued that a putative ninth species identified in 2012 and native to mainland African highlands, A. kilima, is simply a variant of A. digitata.)

While at one time they were thought to have diverged with the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwanaland some 180 million years ago, current genetic analysis suggests that in fact they radiated from Madagascar more recently. Had they been present when Gondwana broke up, it would be expected that baobab species would be evident in the flora of Asia as well as Africa and Australia. Yet, they are largely absent from Asia, except where they were planted by humans. In fact, the places that they occur in India can be mapped to ancient Arab trading routes.  

So, too, their presence in the Caribbean correlates strongly to the African slave trade. Though some have proposed that the species native to Australia originated from fruits that floated from Madagascar, this 6,000 mile journey would likely have degraded the shells. Another theory posits that a no-longer-extant group of African peoples journeyed by sea to Australia some 70,000 years ago and were responsible for transplanting the baobabs, which are relatively genetically similar to the African species. This explanation is bolstered by the existence of the Bradshaw rock art in Australia, which is different from typical Aboriginal art and depicts large, sea-faring boats which may have been constructed from baobab fibers.

However they dispersed, their later associations with humans are well-documented. It is thought that their name derives from the Arabic bu hibab, which translates to “many-seeded.” Medieval Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta mentions them as early as 1353. And Portuguese explorer Gomes Eanes de Zurara noted them while in Guinea-Bissau in 1448, marking the first European observation of the species. It did not come to wider attention until Michel Adanson, a French researcher working in Senegal, sent word of the strange trees to Europe, where Carl Linnaeus catalogued it, as Adansonia, in his Species plantarum (1753).

More recent ethnographic research has recorded some of the numerous myths surrounding the tree. Many of them are versions of an origin story in which the tree was turned upside down by a deity, so that its roots faced the sky. In one, the baobab’s overweening pride in its height and grandeur caused the gods to invert it. In another, the Giriama of Kenya tell of a devil who, infuriated by the tree’s lack of shade, uprooted it and stuck its branches into the earth. And the Bushmen claim that it was a hyena who did so, after being assigned the baobab as its signature tree by an omnipotent deity. With its strangely stunted branches, it is easy to see why these might have been appealing explanations to early observers.

The narrator of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince memorably says, “Beware of baobabs!” after the title character relates to him that baobabs threaten to overtake the tiny asteroid he calls home. Baobabs, however, would do well to beware of humans.

Recent research has shown that global warming is taking its toll on these magnificent trees. Many of the oldest specimens are dying and, in an exit fitting for a tree so steeped in mythological significance, disappearing. Baobab wood is so light and fibrous that, without living tissue to hold it together, it decays and blows away like dandelion fluff.

By Richard Pallardy, Contributing Writer

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