Baobab’s are truly remarkable trees and are often referred to by many names: upside down trees, milk bottles, bottle-brushes, chamber pots, wine coolers, water buckets, teapots, giant scent-bottles, Grecian urns, and some even resemble misshapen carrots or radishes.
But make no mistake these exquisitely evolved beauties thrive in climates where people and other plants have a very hard time just making a living.
Essentially, baobab’s are massive canteens, storing enough water to tolerate many months of drought. Asbestos-like bark protects them from the heat of surface fires. And they sprout new shoots from their roots, and new roots from their trunk, too.
In fact, apart from a single specimen of the Montezuma cypress at Tule in southern Mexico, baobab’s have the largest circumference of any of the 80,000 different kinds of trees on the planet. Some big “bottle-brushes” can even attain a height equivalent of a 10-story building.
There are eight species of baobab: six in Madagascar, one in Australia and one in Africa. Baobabs are found in 31 countries in Africa including four specimens in South Africa known for their girths that exceed 99 feet.
In the absence of an annual tree ring it is difficult to exactly age these magnificent survivors. It is believed that they can reach almost 1,000 years.
Michel Adanson a French explorer and naturalist discovered the first baobab in August of 1749 on the island of Sor in Senegal. He was amazed at the incredible properties of these awesome trees.
All eight species have different shaped seedpods ranging from long and curved in African to apple-shaped and egg-shaped ones in Madagascar.
The seedpods contain small black bean-like seeds that are delicious and nutritious raw or roasted. They are an alternative for coffee beans.
The white pulp, which protects the seeds, makes a sherbet-like or lemonade drink rich in vitamin C. The pulp can also be used in baking as a substitute for cream of tartar and it is also a potent medicine as a replacement for quinine, the antimalarial drug.
Empty seedpods are made into cups, snuff boxes and used as fishing floats. When the seedpods are burnt, the ashes are used as an efficacious soap. In addition, the seedpods are an important food source for critters including half of the world’s species of lemur in Madagascar and native species of squirrels.
The white flowers and pale-green foliage are edible.
The bark can be harvested, without killing the tree, similar to Portuguese cork oak. Baobab bark can be pounded to make rope and bark clothing or flattened to make excellent roof tiles.
The flowers of African and Australian baobabs are white. The Madagascar species are scarlet. Three species of long-tubed hawk moths pollinate the pungent flowers. The other three baobab species have rancid smelling flowers mimicking rotting carrion to attract bats as their pollinators. Flowering and hence pollinating only occurs at night in all eight species.
Baobabs evolved about 15 million years ago, probably first on Madagascar. Thick-shelled, waterproofed seedpods floated west to Africa and east to Asia and finally to northwest Australia.
In the absence of lemurs in Australia, baobabs evolved a self-opening seedpod; a soft, thin shell that breaks when a two pound seedpod hits the ground.
African slaves brought baobab seeds to the Caribbean island of St. Croix in the 17th century. Today there are over 100 splendid baobab spread across the island. There is also a large, young specimen in the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami.
A World Bank dam at Kariba, Zimbabwe drowned thousands of baobabs recently. And tens of thousands of Baobabs were massacred in west Africa because they were host to insect pests which plagued the cocoa and cotton plantations. (The insects found new host plants and the absurd slaughter of baobabs were deemed senseless).
Indigenous peoples, fruit bats, baboons, hawk moths, honeybees, squirrels and elephants all need the baobab. Elephants and baboons dump seeds in their dung, which acts as a fertilizer pack. In return baobabs provide food, vitamins, medicine, water, shade and habitat for a host of animals and insects.
Nature has a flawless blueprint and these wonderful trees and the ecosystems that depend upon them are very worthy of conservation efforts.
Dr. Reese Halter is a conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University, public speaker and founder of the international conservation institute Global Forest Science. His latest book is “The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination,” Rocky Mountain Books. He can be contacted through www.DrReese.com.