The baobab tree is the common name that is given to nine different species of the Adansonia, but it is often referred to as the tree of life or the upside down tree. This genus of trees was named after the French naturalist and explorer, Michael Adanson, who first saw the baobab tree in Sengal in around 1780.
There are lots of myths and legends associated with the baobab tree, these incredible trees can live for up to 5,000 years, growing in areas where other plants and trees struggle to survive and can be found growing wild in more than thirty different countries.
The baobab is a prehistoric tree that has survived for so long due to how it has managed to adapt to its environment.
Species of the Baobab Tree
The nine species of the baobab tree are as follows:
- Adansonia digitata
- Adansonia grandidieri
- Adansonia gregorii
- Adansonia kilima
- Adansonia madagascariensis
- Adansonia perrieri
- Adansonia rubrostipa
- Adansonia suarezensis
- Adansonia za
Native locations of the Baobab Tree
Different species of the tree are native to not only different parts of Africa, but other areas around the globe. Six of the species of the baobab tree are native to Madagascar. These are the Adansonia suarezensis, the Adansonia perrieri, the Adansonia madagascariensis, the Adansonia grandidieri, the Adansonia rubrostipa and the Adansonia za. There is one other variety of baobab tree that is native to Madagascar, the Baobab Amoureux, this is where two Adansonia za trees have grown so that they are wrapped around one another and are the basis for their own legend.
The montane African baobab or the Adansonia kilima is native to eastern and southern Africa. The other species of baobab tree that is native to western, north-eastern, central and southern Africa is the African baobab, which is also known as the dead-rat-tree, the monkey-bread-tree or Adansonia digitata. However, this tree is not only found in Africa, it can be found in Oman and Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula and in Penang.
The final species of baobab tree is native to north-western Australia and is known as the boab, Australian baobab, the bottletree, the cream-of-tartar tree, the gouty-stem and the Adansonia gregorii.
All baobab trees are deciduous trees, shedding their leaves during the dry season to conserve on water and can be found in seasonally arid areas. The baobab tree is also very distinctive in appearance – with branches that look like roots, tiny leaves, pale cream flowers that bloom at night and huge trunks. Baobab trees can grow to between 5 metres and 20 metres in height.
The trunks are smooth and shiny and are a pinkish grey in color though sometimes you may come across a baobab tree that has copper colored bark. The infant forms of the baobab tree also bear no resemblance to the adult forms, which has given rise to the myth that baobab trees crash to the earth fully grown.
The importance of the Baobab Tree: Water
The baobab tree is able to store vast amounts of water in its trunk that allow it to weather harsh drought conditions. They are able to store up to 100,000 litres of water at any one time, making them very useful for villagers that live close by.
The importance of the Baobab Tree: The Baobab Fruit
The baobab tree is becoming increasingly well-known in western culture for the amazing properties of its fruit, but the baobab fruit has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of illnesses from malaria to vitamin C deficiency.
The baobab fruit and baobab seeds can be combined to create baobab fruit powder that is shipped across the world.
Some species of the baobab tree have been used as a source of fiber, fuel and even dye and the leaves of the Adansonia digitata are often eaten as a leaf vegetable. There are also some species of the baobab tree that are used as a source of vegetable oil too.
In Zimbabwe, the baobab fruit is traditional used as a food source where it is eaten as a fresh fruit or it is crushed into a rough pulp that is added to drinks and porridge. But it is not just the fruit and the leaves that can be eaten.
The white powdery interior of the baobab tree has been used as a thickening agent in sauces and jams, as a flavor in hot sauces and a sweetener in some drinks. Both the fruit and seeds of the Adansonia grandidieri and the Adansonia za can be eaten fresh, without having to be cooked or prepared in any way.
In Tanzania, the baobab fruit is used in the fermentation process when beer is produced, the dried pulp of the Adansonia digitata added to the sugar cane.
The importance of the Baobab Tree: Ecology
Baobab trees are not only important for all the mystical, magical and helpful properties that they possess for humans; they are also used by birds to nest in, particularly by the mottled spinetail and four different species of weaver birds.
Not only does it provide a home for birds, it is capable of creating its own ecosystem, with baboons feasting on the fruit and fruit bats and bush babies drinking the nectar and pollinating the flowers. Elephants have even been known to knock down and consume the whole of the baobab tree before, not just the leaves, fruit and flowers.
The baobab tree is also one of the most recognisable trees in the world, and one that is stereotypically associated with the plains of the savannah.
The Baobab Tree in popular culture
The most prevalent use of a baobab in western popular culture is in Disney’s The Lion King. In the movie, the baobab tree is home to the baboon, Rafiki, the shaman. Not only does he use the fruit of the tree for his rituals and ceremonies, but food as well. The branches of Rafiki’s baobab tree are also decorated with paintings and images of life.
This illustration of the baobab tree shows how important it is in some African cultures along with the magic and myths that are associated with the tree as well as how useful the fruit of the baobab tree is.
In Japan, PepsiCo released a limited line named Pepsi Baobab that was flavoured by the baobab fruit.