BOTANICAL ENCOUNTERS: Baobab Is A Superherb!

Text and photos by Ida Rigby, for Let’s Talk Plants! June 2022.

Photo credit: Ida Rigby.

Baobab, the African baobab “tree”, Adansonia digitata, is in fact a gigantic succulent.


Baobab Is a Superherb!


Baobab, the African baobab “tree”, Adansonia digitata, is in fact a gigantic succulent.

It was named for Michel Adanson, a French botanist and explorer who described it on a visit to Senegal in l750. Well before that, in 1352, the Berber scholar and indefatigable traveler, Ibn Battuta, noted that the baobab fruit in Mali tasted like cucumbers. Thomas Baines, a British artist who traveled in southern Africa painted a group of baobabs in l862. He reported that his friend, Dr. Livingstone, vehemently objected to the color he used. Baines’s artist’s eye perceived the baobab as, depending on the light, a metallic, grayish yellow or purple.

Baobabs predate humans. Although there is no fossil baobab pollen, paleobotanists conjecture that the baobab’s lineage may have begun in Gondwana. Carbon dating suggests that some living specimens are up to 3000 years old. These ancient baobabs can have a trunk 110 feet in diameter and rise to 90 feet tall. Different species of baobabs are found Madagascar, Australia, Southwest Asia and Africa. The photographs in this column were all taken in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. African baobabs can be found in a variety of situations including arid shrub savanna . . .


. . . and areas of annual flooding such as the of the Okavango Delta.


Baobabs swell up in the rain and retain water in hollows.



Their stems and roots store copious amounts of water, which all mammals count on during years of drought. In southern Africa it is known as the water tank of the Kalahari. The skin (cuticle) can regrow, so even when elephants girdle the tree by peeling off the skin and pulp for moisture, the plant does not die.


It is also fire resistant.


As prominent landmarks baobabs have been venues for meetings and gatherings. They are usually lone sentinels, but sometimes grow in groups.


Local communities often refer to the baobab as the “Tree of Life” as it supports a whole ecosystem and is associated with origin myths. It is home to insects; barbets; swallows; woodpeckers; snakes such as boomslangs, cobras and mambas; bush babies; bats; leopards and the occasional human. Eagles use it as a hunting perch; red-billed buffalo weavers build large round nests (which to our California eyes look like clumps of mistletoe) of thorny acacia branches to keep out snakes; lilac breasted rollers court from its branches.


A nesting female yellow hornbill will enter a cavity after which her mate plasters her in with mud, leaving only a small hole to pass her food. She sits on their eggs and raises the young in her fortress. Bees build hives in the baobab. Clever honeyguides lead humans to the hives and then wait for them to disrupt the comb. The birds then also partake of the honey.


As you might expect, the baobab’s animated shapes appeal to the imagination . . .


. . . and have inspired legends, figured prominently in African folk tales and encouraged local people to believe that the baobab was home to sometimes helpful, sometimes malevolent spirits. Its large, pendulous white flowers last from late afternoon to morning. According to one belief whoever eats a baobab flower will be killed by a lion. The leitmotiv of many of the tales is that baobab was punished by the Gods who grew tired of its arrogance, bragging, criticizing and hubris. Either out of anger or to teach it some humility the Gods uprooted baobab and threw it back down to earth with its roots in the air; in many areas it is therefore called the “upside down tree.” This “upside down” image is most evident in winter. Most of my photos are from August or September. One year I stayed in southern Africa into October and photographed a baobab that was just leafing out.


These young leaves are used for salads.


Here is a sampling of typical legends surrounding the baobab. For the Shona in Zimbabwe baobab was one of the first creations and grew vain. God ripped it out of the soil and reinserted it upside down. Another tale tells of how baobab criticized the work of the Creator; baobab commented that zebra was very ugly as were hyena and saddle-billed stork. The Creator became angry, tore baobab out of the ground and planted it upside down; baobab was never heard from again. In another story God allowed the animals to help with the Creation. God handed out saplings for them to plant. Hyena (who is often characterized as stupid and lazy) was late and got the only remaining plant, the baobab, which he threw away in disgust. It landed upside down. In a variation God gave animals seeds. Hyena (being careless and dumb) came late and got baobab seeds, which he planted upside down. One Zambian tale is a parable of colonialism. A python lived in a baobab; the people asked him for good things, which he gave them. A white hunter killed the python, and from then on he could be heard hissing in the baobab and bad things happened to the people.

The baobab also figures in more recent literature such as in Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree and Peter Matthiessen’s The Tree Where Man Was Born. The baobab captured the imagination of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on his mail flights in North Africa; his imaginary planet contained many baobab seeds, which could erupt into plants at any moment. In 2002 South Africa took advantage of the baobab’s venerable history by creating the Order of the Baobab, an award conferred annually on distinguished citizens.


As baobabs age, they decay from within. In Zimbabwe we walked to one of these old trees.

You can see our guide and a fellow tourist preparing for the walk; one is checking his rifle, the other his camera.

On safari, the moment your foot touches the ground you become acutely aware of being prey and suddenly experience a heightened level of sensory alertness. We stalked warthogs, found a shedded mamba skin and passed fresh lion and hippo tracks. Today the cavern in this baobab houses snakes, leopards and bats, and has sheltered humans.


It was even used as a jail. In Namibia a 750-year-old baobab called the “Tree of Life” has served as a hideout, a chapel and a post office. Baobabs have also been used as tombs and in recent times as bars for tourists.


Our Karen England would bestow the title of “Superherb” on the baobab due to its many uses.

Noun superherb (plural superherbs) A herb that is a superfood. superherb - Wiktionary en.wiktionary.org/wiki/superherb

The baobab’s fruit is a superfood high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and feeds fruit bats, nocturnal bush babies, antelopes, elephants, monkeys, baboons and humans. Elephants and baboons spread baobab seeds in their droppings. The powdered roots are used to treat malaria; powders and tonics made from the baobab are used to treat such diverse ailments as digestive problems, kidney disorders, colic, asthma, insect bites and more. The dried husks of the seed pods are used as containers. The soft flesh of the baobab is fibrous and is used for weaving rope, fish nets, mats, textiles and baskets and for strings for instruments, thatch and soles for sandals. Soap and glue are also made from the baobab.

Few new trees, however, are growing and older trees seem to be dying at an accelerating pace. There are real threats to the baobab’s future including being used for fuel, lumber and cattle fodder. Climate change is altering the baobabs’ preferred environments and is hastening their decline.


Of course, they are a photographer’s delight at sunset.


 

Ida Rigby is a past SDHS Board member and Garden Tour Coordinator. She has gardened in Poway since l992 and

emphasizes plants from the northern and southern Mediterranean latitudes. Her garden received the San Diego Home/Garden Magazine Best Homeowner Design and Grand Prize in their Garden of the Year contest in l998. Her travels focus on natural history.