Baobab is the common name for the trees of the genus Adansonia — along with the names boab, boaboa, bottle tree, upside-down tree, and monkey bread tree. The genus contains nine different species, six of which are native to Madagascar, two native to the African mainland, one to Australia, and one to the Arabian Peninsula. One of the species native to the African mainland was only identified as a unique species just last year — in 2012. Several of the species are have now been introduced to and planted in much of the temperate world.
The beautiful trees grow to heights of a 100 or so feet, and feature massive trunks which can grow to as large as 36 feet in diameter. The largest specimen known in modern times — the Glencoe Baobab — had a circumference of 154 feet until recently. That specimen recently split into two separate trunks though. The Sundland baobab of South Africa is probably now the largest individual baobab in the world — it measures about about 35 feet in diameter and has a circumference of around 110 feet.
While some of the trees are quite, quite old, they don’t actually produce growth rings like many trees do — as a result, carbon dating is usually used to establish estimated ages. Many of the larger trees are thought to be at least several thousand years old.
The trees are an excellent resource for those that live near them — providing food via the fruits and seeds, freshwater via the rainwater trapped in the trunks, medicine via the leaves, fiber for textiles, and dyes.
One tree in Australia — with a hollow in its trunk — even served as a temporary prison during the 1890s. It’s worth noting that the “prisoners” were all Aboriginal prisoners being held by the relatively new Australian authorities.
An interesting story with regards to that tree: “Some years ago a trooper was bringing into Wyndham a party in chains when at dusk they arrived at the baob-tree. As there wasn’t room inside for everybody the trooper chained two of the prisoners to the tree. One of the pair was a magnificent specimen of a man well over six feet high with well shaped arms and legs and a blacksmith’s chest. At daybreak that native was missing and so was the chain. But an iron bolt to which the chain had been padlocked was left bent back in the form of a hairpin.”
With regards to the use of the leaves, fruits, and seeds as food — they are all quite nutritious. As per Wikipedia: “The fruit has a velvety shell and is about the size of a coconut, weighing about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb). It has an acidic, tart flavor, described as somewhere between grapefruit, pear, and vanilla. The dried fruit powder contains about 12% water and various nutrients, including carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, potassium and iron. It contains 50% more calcium than spinach, is high in antioxidants, and has three times the vitamin C of an orange.”
A couple of final notes — some of the stouter trees apparently served very effectively as bomb shelters during some of the wars of the last 100 years — not surprising when you see in person just how thick some of the trunks can get. Some of the larger trees also function very effectively as a means to store large quantities of rain water — the trunks sometimes storing as much as 32,000 gallons of water. That’s no doubt a useful environmental feature for the people and animals in the area during the dry season.
And no doubt the most important thing to note — most of the species are currently highly endangered and possibly headed towards extinction.