Baobab, one of the most magnificent trees in the world

Baobab, one of the most magnificent trees that exist

Baobá - Adansonia grandidieri
Madagascar Baobab – Adansonia grandidieri. Image: Bernard Gagnon – Supplied under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0

We give the generic name of Baobá to trees of the genus Adansonia , which has nine species in total. Six of these species are native to Madagascar, two on the savannas of mainland Africa (and on the Arabian peninsula), and one of them is native to Australia.

It is interesting to note that the African species and the Australian species are practically identical, even though they separated from each other more than 100 million years ago.

Baobabs are majestic trees, reaching between 5 and 30 m in height, and are notable for the diameter of the trunk, that can be anywhere between 7 and 15 m, with a circumference of up to 47 m in isolated cases.

These trees can live for hundreds of years, with one particular specimen dated to be over 1275 years old, according to radiocarbon dating (they do not have annual growth rings, so dating must be done by other methods ).

Baobá Adansonia gregorii
Adansonia gregorii – By Nachoman-au – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=482474

The baobab was “discovered” (for Westerners, of course) by the French naturalist Michel Adanson (hence the genus Adansonia,  baptized by Linnaeus), who had his first encounter with one of these trees in August 1749, on the island of Sor, in Senegal. According to the story, he had gone out with locals to hunt antelopes, and at one point he spotted a specimen of baobab, which he described in his book Voyage en Senegal as:

“I put aside all thoughts about hunting, as soon as I noticed a prodigious thick tree, which caught my attention … I extended my arms, as widely as I could, thirteen times, before embracing its circumference; And for greater accuracy, I measured it with string and found it was sixty-five feet (19.81m)”

Baobab Species

The nine known species of baobabs are listed below:

  • Continental African natives:
    • Adansonia kilima Pettigrew, et al.
    • Adansonia digitata L. (also Arabian peninsula)
  • Natives of Madagascar:
    • Adansonia grandidieri Baill.
    • Adansonia madagascariensis Baill.
    • Adansonia perrieri Capuron
    • Adansonia rubrostipa Jum. & H.Perrier (syn. A. fony)
    • Adansonia suarezensis H.Perrier
    • Adansonia za Baill.
  • Australian baobab:
    • Adansonia gregorii F. Muell. (syn. A. gibbosa)

Characteristics

The most striking feature of baobabs is their ability to store large amounts of water in their trunks, which can reach around 120,000 liters, depending on the species. They store all this water in order to survive when environmental conditions become extreme, with a lack of rain and droughts that can last for a long time.

In addition, baobabs are deciduous trees, which means they lose their leaves at certain times. In this case, they lose their leaves during dry season.

Baobá bebê
Baobá seedlings, cultivated by the author. Photo: Fábio dos Reis.

Curiosities

Some of the baobab species are used with sources of fiber, pigments and fuel. In addition, its fruits can be eaten, as well as its seeds, which are usually eaten roasted. In fact, the dried fruit is used to make ice cream in Angola, and drinks in Zimbabwe.

Flor de Baobá (Adansonia digitata)
Baobab flower (Adansonia digitata). Author: Atamari. Photo used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition, its leaves and flowers are also edible, but its wood is not suitable for use, as it is very fibrous and spongy (after all, it accumulates water)

There are records that its fruits were traded in markets in Cairo as early as the early 16th. century, apparently brought by caravans of slaves coming from Sudan towards North Africa.

Avenida dos Baobás
Baobab Avenue – Image: Fox-Talbot –
Provided under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0

The tree is also shrouded in mystery and has given rise to several myths over the centuries. One of the best known is a myth of creating the “upside-down tree”, which says that “When God made the world, He gave each animal a tree. The baobab was given to the hyena, but she refused and threw it away. The tree fell on the ground, upside down, and this gave rise to its extraordinary shape ”.

Fruto do Baobá
Baobab fruit. Author: Alex Antener. Photo used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0

In many different cultures the Baobab tree is considered a gift from the gods, being venerated to the point that funerals are made when these trees die, in some places, such as in Burkina Faso, by the Kassalongo and Marka peoples.

 

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