Adansonia is a tree genus made up of eight species of large deciduous trees commonly called baobabs – or ‘upside down trees’. It has this name because of its peculiar shape – when it’s bare of leaves, its spreading, twisted branches look like roots spreading out into the air as if the tree had been planted upside down.
The smooth, shiny trees thrive in hot, dry savannahs and scrublands, and are native to lowland areas of mainland Africa, Madagascar, and Australia. They have also been introduced to parts of southern Asia.
Due to their enormous size, a mature baobab tree plays a significant role in its ecosystem, supporting everything from insects to the world’s largest animals. Birds nest in its branches; troops of monkeys feast on the fruit; lesser bushbabies and fruit bats drink the nectar and pollinate the flowers, whilst giraffes and elephants rely on the nutrient and moisture-rich baobab bark. Baobabs also provide food, shelter, and water to humans and animals.
Baobabs – the biggest, oldest trees around
The baobab predates humankind and has been traced back over 200 million years to the Pangea super-continent. As well as having an extremely long lineage, these trees are themselves are known to live for thousands of years.
Their great ages are often guestimated from their size, as baobabs don’t always lay down distinct annual growth rings. Even when they do, their growth rings are typically too faint to count, making it hard to understand their exact age. A recent research project involved an international team testing a new radiocarbon dating method to find the exact age of the trees. Tiny wood samples from 60 of Africa’s largest baobab trees were collected and studied, and the oldest was found to be at least 2,450-2,500 years old.
As they continue to grow for their whole lives, baobabs mature into very tall trees. They are the largest and longest-living flowering plant in the world, growing up to 30 meters high with a diameter of up to 15 diameters. The largest circumference on record is 47 meters, and one baobab tree can contain as much as 500 cubic meters of wood.
One finding for the reason baobabs live so long and become so enormous because they grow new stems, much like other trees grow new branches. Over time, these stems fuse into a ring-shaped trunk structure with a cavity in the middle.
The legendary upside down tree
As such an iconic African tree, the baobab has a place in many traditional African stories and legends. Indeed, perhaps it’s not surprising that such an odd-looking tree has so many myths linked to it. Here are a few of our favourites:
- Along the Zambezi River tribes believe that in the world’s early days the baobabs were proud and upright, and lorded their status over the smaller plants. The gods became angry at their attitude and uprooted the baobabs, putting them back into the soil with their roots facing upwards.
- A similar tale goes that when baobabs were planted by God they were too adventurous, and kept walking around between continents. God had enough and intervened by pulling the trees out by their roots and flipping them upside down to keep them from moving.
- The African bushman’s story goes that the god Thora took a dislike to the baobab growing in his wonderful garden. Instead of tending to it he threw it out over the wall of Paradise down to the Earth below, where it landed upside down, but continued to grow.
- An alternative folklore take suggests the unusual branch structure of the baobab is the result of the tree complaining that it wasn’t as good looking as its neighbours, leading the devil to yank it out of the ground and shove it back in upside down to show off its tangled roots.
- Some African tribes believe that when they wash a baby boy in water-soaked in baobabs bark they will grow up to be mighty and strong, like the tree itself.
- In the Limpopo River area, natives believe that women living in villages where baobabs are plentiful have more children than women in villages with no baobabs. Doctors believe this story has some basis in fact, as the soup made from baobab leaves is rich in vitamins and may increase the fertility rate.
- Some people believe that evil spirits haunt the baobab’s white flowers, and anyone who picks one will be killed by a lion. On the plus side, if you drink water that has been used to soak a baobab’s seeds you will be safe from a crocodile attack.
At the beginning of the rainy season the baobab’s branches begin to grow their new leaves, which are present for only around 3 months each year, falling when the dry season comes.
Blossoming starts during the tree’s early adulthood, and the trees have large white (stinky) flowers that have a tendency to open only at night. Old, large baobabs can have hundreds of flowers, each with their own rhythm of blossoming – some for only minutes, others for a couple of hours each night.
Bats and bushbabies are symbiotic with the baobab, finding the blooming cycle a good match for their lifestyle. The smell of the flowers attracts these night-feeding mammals to feed on the nectar, in return for pollinating the flowers.
Baobab fruit – the superfood
The gourd-like fruit of the baobab can grow up to 30 cm long and is covered in a greyish velvety fur. The fruit is said to resemble dead rats hanging by their tails, giving rise to another nickname for the giant tree – the ‘dead rat tree’.
With its coconut-like flesh, the baobab fruit is a traditional source of nutrition and one of the most nutrient-dense fruits found on earth. The fruit is actually a superfood, rich in antioxidants, and a good source of tartaric acid and vitamin C for wildlife and humans alike. The pulp can be sucked straight, dried and mixed with water to make a natural lemonade-style drink, or dried, roasted, and ground to make an alternative coffee-like beverage.
The seeds are said to taste like cream of tartar, and are traditionally pounded into meals when other food sources are scarce.
Baobab, the ‘tree of life’, and its many uses
Yet another moniker, the baobab is also known as the ‘tree of life’. Alongside the fruit, almost the entire tree can be – and is – used by humans in some capacity, for its many nutritional benefits, fibers, and also as a social location.
Their unique bark and enormous stem contain a fire-resistant fiber, pounded to make fishnets, rope, mats, clothing paper, cloth, waterproof hats, strings for musical instruments, and more. The bark can also be ground into a powder to flavour meals with extra nutrients.
Fresh baobab leaves were traditionally used for leaven, and provide a spinach-like vegetable for soups and medicine. The leaves are also used to treat kidney and bladder disease, insect bites, and asthma.
Pollen from the flowers is mixed with water to make glue.
The giant trees are an important source of timber, and the trunks are often hollowed out by people who use them for shelter, grain storage, water reservoirs, and even burial sites.
With all of these benefits, baobabs are an integral part of the lives of many African villages where they are present. They are also often a focal point for the local community and have significant cultural importance, with locals using the shade of the giant trees for meetings, storytelling, or holding markets.
And that’s the lot for this look at the baobab/tree of life/dead rat tree/upside-down tree. What do you think – learn anything new? Or are we missing anything significant you think we should add? Please join in and let us know in the comments section below!