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5 min read

The following article was written by Leigh Kemp


Described as grotesque by some, but looked upon as majestic by most, the baobab [Adansonia digitata] is a dramatic part of the African landscape. Legends of Africa tell that the baobab is the portal from where all life on earth emanated. Today it still provides for man and animal alike. Revered by the people of the continent the baobab is protected by this reverence.

A striking photo of a group of baobabs in Tanzania at sunset

One of the most striking symbols of Africa, the baobab defines the landscape in the savannah regions across the African continent, from the north eastern parts of South Africa, through east Africa into West Africa and the Sahel region that buffers tropical Africa from the Sahara. The baobab is known as the Tree of Life in many cultures on the continent, said to be where all life stemmed from and because of its life sustaining qualities. A single tree is capable of storing up to 100 000 litres of water and can live for thousands of years, adding to the legend of its supernatural powers.

Baobabs are very difficult to age due to the faint growth rings but it is determined they can live for thousands of years. This ageing is done through radiocarbon dating. The oldest known baobab to date is 2500 years. It is believed that the largest baobabs in Africa range between 750 and 2000 years old.

Against the odds

Another fascinating aspect of the tree is its ability to survive great damage. The bark of the baobab has been used by humans for centuries to make ropes and mats. Unlike most other trees that have their bark peeled the baobab can survive this debarking. Today the signs of human activity can be seen on many of the baobabs around Africa in the scars on the lower parts of the stems. This gives the baobab its gnarled look.

Evidence of fresh elephant damage on a baobab.

More evidence of damage inflicted by elephants on a Tanzanian baobab.

Modelled by climate, terrain and animals baobabs grow in numerous very interesting shapes. Elephants are known to shape baobab trees by pulling down branches to be able to access the inner pulp and to get at the fruits. The broken branches will continue to grow if they still have some contact with the main tree. Elephants will also dig out the inner pulp of the tree for the moisture and fibrous nourishment. The tree will continue to grow after the apparent demolition and many trees today with hollowed out insides are used as restaurants, bars, toilets and even prisons.

Baobabs may fall, or branches may break, but they will continue to grow. From barrel-shaped stems to slanting and straight style the baobabs of Africa showcase a variety of shapes. There are single standing baobabs, some split from the roots and some straight and spreading from the apex. In some places in Africa there are baobabs occurring in groups and within these groups there are differences in shapes and styles.

There are eight species of Baobab in the world. Six species are found in Madagascar, one species in Australia and one species in Africa. There is a debate as to whether the African baobabs represent two species or only one. Some scientists are of the idea that the baobabs in some of the highland areas in East Africa are a separate species due to smaller leaves and flowers.

Madagascar is renowned for its lemurs, but for botanists it is the baobabs of the country that are the star attraction. Of the eight species of baobab in the world Madagascar has 6 species, with the most famous being the Giant Baobab [Adansonia grandidieri]. Reaching up to 30 meters tall, the group known as the Avenue of the Baobabs is a much-photographed group of baobabs in the western part of the country.

The smallest baobab in Madagascar is the Fony Baobab, [Adansonia rubrostipa], that grows up to 5 meters tall and can be found in the Spiny forest Reserve near Ifaty on the South-west coast of Madagascar.

Examples multi-stemmed baobabs in the Pafuri region.

Baobabs often look as though they are more than one tree. This is a result of the young stems splitting from the roots, and sometimes from germination. There are a number of examples of multi-stemmed baobabs in Southern Africa: in the Pafuri region in the north of the Kruger National Park and the Big Tree in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The Big Tree seems to be seven different trees but botanists have proved that it is one tree.

Flowers and seeds

Large white, and sweetly scented, flowers usually emerge in the late afternoon in early summer. They fall from the tree within a day or two – after night time pollination by fruit bats and hawk moths. The hawk moth pollination is still debated by scientists, although I have personally photographed hawk moths feeding on the baobab flower. Some scientists say hawk moths are nectar thieves and not pollinators however.

Convoluted hawk moth [Agrius convolvuli] and baobab flowers.

Though beautiful to behold, it must be remembered that baobab flowers are sacred in many cultures – it is believed that if you pick a flower from the tree you will be devoured by a lion.

The fruit is a large oval-shaped capsule consisting of a hard woody outer shell enclosing black kidney-shaped seeds that are covered by a white powdery substance. This substance is soaked in water and used as a refreshing drink. The drink is also used to treat fevers.

Legends of the upside-down tree

There are local legends that say baobabs grow upside down: when the tree has no leaves it seems that the roots are in the air. The one story is that God gave the seed of each tree to an animal to plant. The hyena was given the seed of the baobab and in spite that God had made him so ugly he decided to get revenge, by planting the seed upside down.

Another legend goes that at the dawn of time God put the baobab in the valley, but the tree was unhappy, believing that it should be on the mountaintop to showcase its regal stature. God listened and moved the baobab to the mountain top. After some time the winds and snow on the mountain top was too much for the baobab and it complained to God, who then picked up the tree and threw it far off into the plains of Africa. The tree landed upside down and has been so ever since.

Sunset image of the upside down tree in Botswana.

Baobabs dying out

Over the past few years there have been a number of incidents of baobabs falling and dying for no apparent reason. Botanists are at odds over the causes of these trees dying. It is hoped that these incidents are the exception rather than the rule. It is thought to be that the lengthy drought over the past decade has affected the water content of the tree and they are dying of dehydration. Another train of thought is that the dying trees have reached a certain age where they cannot adapt to climatic changes fast enough.

About the author: Leigh Kemp grew up in nature on a remote farm in the Eastern Cape. This geared him to a life of travelling the wild places of Africa for more than 35 years as a wilderness guide, tour guide, travel writer and conservationist – learning and collecting information and images on all aspects of the African wilderness. Visit his site here, contact him directly on kempleigh06[at]gmail.com or call him on +27 79 596 6671.

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