A symbol of life on the African plains, the giant baobab belongs to the genus Adansonia, a group of trees consisting of nine different species. Only two species, Adansonia digitata and Adansonia kilima, are native to the African mainland, while six of their relatives are found in Madagascar and one in Australia. Although the baobab's genus is small, the tree itself is quite the opposite.
Baobab trees are the true giants of the African bush. Their distinctive silhouettes loom over the acacia scrubland, with Medusa-like branches spreading chaotically above a bulbous body. Baobabs may not be as tall as the coast redwoods of North America, but their vast bulk makes them a strong contender for the world's largest tree. Adansonia digitata can reach 82 feet in height, and 46 feet in diameter around the trunk.
Baobabs are often referred to as upside-down trees, thanks to the root-like appearance of their tangled branches. They are found throughout the African continent, although their range is limited by their preference for drier, less tropical climates. They have been introduced overseas as well, and can now be found in countries like India, China, and Oman. Baobabs are known to live for more than 1,500 years.
The largest Adansonia digitata baobab currently in existence is thought to be the Sagole Baobab, located near the rural town of Tshipise in Limpopo Province, South Africa. It stands 72 feet high and has a crown diameter of 125 feet. It would take 20 grown men to form an unbroken circle around the trunk with outstretched arms. The local Venda people call the tree muri kunguluwa, or 'the tree that roars', after the sound the wind makes when it moves through its branches. It is a sacred part of their tribal culture, and has stood sentinel over the surrounding landscape for more than 1,200 years.
Other famous South African baobabs include the Glencoe and Sunland trees, both of which have now toppled over. Radiocarbon dating proved that the Glencoe baobab, which was thought to be the stoutest tree in the world, was over 1,835 years old. The Sunland baobab was so wide that its hollow trunk was able to host a wine cellar and bar. In Madagascar, the most famous baobabs are those growing along the Avenue of the Baobabs on the dirt road from Morondava to Belon’i Tsiribihina. The grove includes around 25 endemic Adansonia grandidieri baobabs, some of which are are over 100 feet tall.
The Tree of Life
The baobab has many useful properties, which explains why it is widely known as the Tree of Life. It behaves like a giant succulent with up to 80 percent of its trunk made up of water. San bushmen used to rely on the trees as a valuable source of water when the rains failed and the rivers dried. A single tree can hold up to 1,189 gallons of the precious liquid, while the hollow center of an old baobab also provides valuable shelter.
The bark and flesh are soft, fibrous, and fire-resistant and can be used to weave rope and cloth. Baobab products are also used to make soap, rubber, and glue; while the bark and leaves are harvested for traditional medicine. The baobab is a life-giver for African wildlife, too, often creating its very own ecosystem. It provides food and shelter for a myriad of species, from the tiniest insect to the mighty African elephant.
A Modern Superfruit
Baobab fruit resembles a velvet-covered, oblong gourd and is filled with big black seeds surrounded by tart, slightly powdery pulp. Native Africans often refer to the baobab as the monkey-bread-tree and have known about the health benefits of eating its fruit and leaves for centuries. Young leaves can be cooked and eaten as an alternative to spinach, while the fruit pulp is often soaked, then blended into a drink.
Recently, the Western world has hailed baobab fruit as the ultimate superfruit, thanks to its high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamin C. Some reports state that the fruit's pulp has almost ten times the amount of vitamin C as the equivalent serving of fresh oranges. It has 50 percent more calcium than spinach and is recommended for skin elasticity, weight loss, and improved cardiovascular health.
The Stuff of Legends
There are many stories and traditions involving baobab trees. Along the Zambezi River, many tribes believe that the baobab once grew upright, but considered itself so much better than the lesser trees around it that eventually the gods decided to teach the baobab a lesson. They uprooted it and planted it upside down, in order to stop its boasting and teach the tree humility.
In other areas, specific trees have stories attached to them. Zambia's Kafue National Park is home to a particularly large specimen, which the locals know as kondanamwali – 'the tree that eats maidens'. According to legend, the tree fell in love with four local girls, who shunned the tree and sought human husbands instead. In revenge, the tree pulled the maidens into its interior and kept them there forever.
Elsewhere, it is believed that washing a young boy with water that has been used to soak baobab bark will help him to grow strong and tall; while others hold the tradition that women living in a baobab area are likely to be more fertile than those living in an area with no baobabs. In many places, the giant trees are recognized as a symbol of community and are used as a gathering place for ceremonies and rituals.
The Order of the Baobab is a South African civilian national honor, instituted in 2002. It is awarded annually by the president to citizens for distinguished service in the fields of business and the economy; science, medicine, and technological innovation; or community service. It was named in recognition of the baobab's endurance, and its cultural and environmental importance.
This article was update and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on December 3 2019.