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Baobab Newsletter

"The Bushmen of Southern Africa say that Gawe, the Great Spirit, gave all the animals a particular species of tree except the hyena. He told the hyena that he would not be given one unless he behaved properly and stopped stealing. The hyena was angry and resolved not to change his ways. The Great Spirit finally gave Baobabhim his last, tiny Baobab plant. The hyena was not impressed and became angry and, in a fit of temper, planted the seedling upside-down. "
     The Zambezi: River of the Gods
                            Jan and Fiona Teede


Baobab Tree Description


Often referred to as 'grotesque' by some authors, the main stem of larger baobab trees may reach enormous proportions of up to 90 feet girth, although baobab trees seldom exceed a height of 80 feet. The massive, usually squat cylindrical trunk gives rise to thick tapering branches resembling a root-system, which is why it has often been referred to as the upside-down tree. There is a tale which tells of how God planted them upside-down and many traditional Africans believe that the baobab actually grows upside-down.

The stem is covered with a bark layer, which may be 2-4 inches thick. The bark is grayish brown and normally smooth but can often be variously folded and seamed from years of growth. The leaves are hand-sized and divided into 5-7 finger-like leaflets. Being deciduous, the leaves are dropped during the winter months and appear again in late spring or early summer.The large, pendulous flowers (up to 8 inches in diameter) are white and sweetly scented. They emerge in the late afternoon from large round buds on long drooping stalks from October to December. The flowers fall within 24 hours, turning brown and smelling quite unpleasant. Pollination by fruit bats takes place at night.

The fruit is a large, egg-shaped capsule (often 4-5 inches), covered with yellowish brown hairs. The fruit consists of a hard, woody outer shell with a dry, powdery substance inside that covers the hard, black, kidney-shaped seeds. The off-white, powdery substance is apparently rich in ascorbic acid. It is this white powdery substance which is soaked in water to provide a refreshing drink somewhat reminiscent of lemonade. This drink is also used to treat fevers and other complaints.

This tree is slow growing, mainly due to the low rainfall it receives.


The baobab tree is found in areas of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and other tropical African countries where suitable habitat occurs. It is restricted to hot, dry woodland on stony, well drained soils, in frost-free areas that receive low rainfall. In South Africa it is found only in the warm parts of the Limpopo Province.

--see Plantzafrica.com

Interesting Information about the Baobab Tree

The Baobab tree is a strange looking tree that grows in low-lying areas in Africa and Australia. It can grow to enormous sizes and carbon dating indicates that they may live to be 3,000 years old.

One ancient hollow Baobab tree in Zimbabwe is so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its trunk. Various Baobabs have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn and a bus shelter. The tree is certainly very different from any other. The trunk is smooth and shiny, not at all like the bark of other trees, and it is pinkish gray or sometimes copper colored.

When bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the Baobab look like roots sticking up into the air, rather as if it had been planted upside-down. Baobabs are very difficult to kill. They can be burnt, or stripped of their bark, and they will just form new bark and carry on growing. When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibres, which makes many people think that they don't die at all, but simply disappear.

An old Baobab tree can create its own ecosystem, as it supports the life of countless creatures, from the largest of mammals to the thousands of tiny creatures scurrying in and out of its crevices. Birds nest in its branches; baboons devour the fruit; bush babies and fruit bats drink the nectar and pollinate the flowers, and elephants have been known to chop down and consume a whole tree.

A baby Baobab tree looks very different from its adult form and this is why the Bushmen believe that it doesn't grow like other trees, but suddenly crashes to the ground with a thump, fully grown, and then one day simply disappears. No wonder they are thought of as magic trees.

--see Siyabona Africa - Kruger Park

Baobab Tree Legends

The baobab looks like it has been picked out of the ground and stuffed back in upside-down. The trunk would be the tap-root, and the branches the finer capillary roots. An Arabian legend says that "the devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth and left its roots in the air."

Another legend describes what happens if you are never satisfied with what you already have:Baobab and Elephant

"The baobab was among the first trees to appear on the land. Next came the slender, graceful palm tree. When the baobab saw the palm tree, it cried out that it wanted to be taller. Then the beautiful flame tree appeared with its red flower and the baobab was envious for flower blossoms. When the baobab saw the magnificent fig tree, it prayed for fruit as well. The gods became angry with the tree, and pulled it up by its roots, then replanted it upside down to keep it quiet."

--see Champion Trees - Baobab

A final legend sees Baobab punished for arrogance, as related by Katie Kruger: "Moudou, his two brothers, General and I started our journey when the afternoon sun had already heated every nook and cranny of the land. As we set out, Moudou shared with me the legend of the genesis of the Baobab tree. When God created the Baobab, he made it the strongest tree in the world. Knowing this, the Baobab became very proud and moved all around the continent of Africa, showing off how great it was. This greatly upset God, who feared he had failed to teach the tree humility. In order to do so, he took the Baobab, lifted it out of the ground and planted it upside down. Today, the trees' branches that we see are actually its ancient roots."

--see Selling the Sacred - Fadiouth, Senegal

Traditional Uses

Baobab Leaves

The leaves, especially the young leaves, are popular as a spinach or dried and powdered and made into soups or sauces (Williamson, 1955; Nicol, 1959; Sahini,1968; Woodruff, 1969; Owen, 1970; E.C. Strover, pers. comm., 1970). The trees may be pollarded in order to encourage an abundance of young leaves; pollarding is also carried out on hollow trees used for water storage in order to prevent them becoming top-heavy and falling over. The leaves are also browsed by stock, being an especially valuable fodder for horses (Woodruff, 1969; Burkill, fined.).

Fresh leaves are rich in vitamin C (Carr, 1958) as well as containing uronic acids, rhamnose and other sugars, tannins, potassium tartrate, catechins, etc. (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1932).

Baobab Flowers

The only recorded economic use of the flower is the mixing of the pollen with water to make glue (Woodruff, 1969).
--The uses of the baobab (adansonia digitata l.) in Africa


Baobab Fruit

The fruit was known to the ancient Egyptians (Loret and Poisson, Baobab Fruit1895; Beauvierie, 1935), and must have been brought there from further south, presumably for some specific purpose. Certainly the fruits were to be found in the Cairo markets in the late 16th century, where they were described by Alpino (1592). They were regarded as a substitute for terra lemnia and as such imported into Europe.

Ibn Battuta (1929) noted that the husks of the fruit may be used as dishes; they may even be fashioned into vessels or snuff boxes (Burkill, fined.) or used as fishing floats (Watt, 1889). The husks can be used as fuel and provide a potash-rich ash suitable for soap making. The powdered husk or peduncle may be smoked as a substitute for tobacco (Burkill, fined.), while the fibres lining the husk are used as a decoction to treat amenorrhoea.

The acid pith, which is rich in ascorbic acid (Carr, 1958) is used as a substitute for cream of tartar for baking (Mogg, 1950; Williamson, 1955); it may also be ground and made into gruel or prepared as a refreshing drink. The pulp is also used to curdle milk, and a decoction used to coagulate the latex of Landolphia heudelotii A.DC. (Chevalier, 1906). The pulp is also used for smoking fish, its acrid smell also drives away insects troublesome to stock. In East Africa an extract from the pulp is used as a hairwash (R.G. Strey, verbal information 1978).

An emulsion of the pith is used by the Fulani herdsmen to adulterate milk, a popular drink with the Kaura farmers whom the Fulani supply (Nicol, 1957).

--The uses of the baobab (adansonia digitata l.) in Africa

Baobab Fruit Seeds

The seeds have a relatively thick shell which is not readily separated from the kernel. The kernel is edible but the difficulties of decortication limit its usefulness. The seeds may be eaten fresh or dry, either sucked, ground and used to flavour soups, or roasted to provide a substitute for coffee. The shoot and roots of germinating seeds and seedlings are also eaten. An oil may be obtained by distillation of the seeds, which is used in Senegal on gala occasions. The crushed, roasted seeds, are applied as a paste to diseased teeth and gums. When burnt the seeds provide a potash-rich salt used for soap making (Burkill, fined.).

Baobab Oil
An oil is derived from the seeds of the baobab tree, native to Eastern and Southern Africa and has been part of African skin care for centuries. This rich, oil is semi-fluid, golden yellow, and gently scented. It has a high content of essential fatty acids (oleic, linoleic, and linolenic in particular). This is a highly stable oil with a shelf life of approximately two years.

--Mortar and Pestle/ --Phytotrade Afric

Baobab Roots
In West Africa the roots are reputed to be cooked and eaten, presumably in times of famine. The Temne of Sierra Leone believe that a root-decoction taken with food causes stoutness. In East Africa a soluble red dye is obtained from the roots (Burkill fined.). In Zambia an infusion of the roots is used to bath babies in order to promote a smooth skin. The root bark is used as string or rope for making fishing nets, sacks, mats etc. (D.B Fanshawe, personal communication, 1969).

Baobab Trunk
The hollow trunks of living trees may be put to a variety of purposes. By far the most common is for the storage of water, a practice first recorded by the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta (1929) from naturally hollowed trees in Mali during the early 14th century. The hollowed trunk may be carved out in 3–4 days; a medium sized tree may hold 400 gallons while a large tree could contain 2000 gallons, and the water therein remains sweet several years if the hollow is kept well closed (Drar, 1970; Nachtigal, 1971). The practice however is viewed with disfavor by medical officers as providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes (Burkill, fined.). The opening to the hollow is preferably made just above the axil of a branch so that some water may run directly down the branch into the hollow. If possible the soil below the canopy is removed in order to form a small, shallow depression from which the rainwater can collect and then be taken by means of a bucket and a long rope to the opening in the trunk.

An opening in the top of the trunk creates a cooling draught (Koeleman, 1972). Yet another hollow tree in the Transvaal is used as a dairy (Guy, 1971), who also reports of another tree in Botswana being used as a dwelling.

Since the buffalo-weaver birds in Northern Transvaal always rest on the western side of the baobab, the tree can be used in lieu of a compass (E.A. Galpin, personal communication, 1969).

In the Sudan Republic the trees are regarded as personal property that may be inherited or sold (Nachtigal, 1971) and the ownerships of the various trees are kept in local government registers. The trees were often the only source of water available during the dry season for both villagers and long-distance travelers, although a large number of the trees were deliberately destroyed during the time of the Mahdi in order to prevent the movement of people (Owen, 1970). Hollow trees filled with water in the North Frontier Province of Kenya were used by slave and ivory raiders from Ethiopia in order to enable them to cross otherwise waterless country (E.A. Galpin, personal communication, 1969).

Early records of European travelers in South Africa noted the use by the Bantu tribes of water stored in natural hollows (Story, 1964). A chain-like avenue of trees across the Kalahari to south-west Africa was used for water storage, with a long established tradition of death should a traveler leave the bung out of a tree and waste water (Mogg, 1950). The bushmen are reported to abstract water from hollow trunks by means of grass straws (Story, 1958).

In West Africa the hollow trunks may be used as tombs and a place where a body denied burial may be suspended between earth and sky for mummification (Cooke, 1870; Grisard, 1891; Drar, 1970; Owen, 1970; Burkill, fined.); people denied burial include poets, musicians, drummers and buffoons (Guy, 1971; Armstrong, 1977). At Grand Galarques in Senegal a hollow tree with a carved entrance was used as a meeting place (Cooke, 1870), another tree in Nigeria was used as a prison (Owen, 1970) and in Mali the 14th century traveler, Ibn Battuta reported a weaver with a loom set up in a hollow tree (Ibn Battuta, 1929).

Elsewhere in West Africa hollowed trees have been used as stables (Guy, 1971).

In East Africa the trunks may also be hollowed out to provide shelter and storage rooms (Burkill, fined.) but their more varied use occurs in southern Africa. In Rhodesia a hollow tree on the Birchenough Bridge road is used as a bus shelter, accommodating 30–40 persons (E.C. Strover, pers. comm., 1970; Guy, 1971). Another tree near Umtali is used by the Roads Department for the storage of wheelbarrows and implements, and yet another tree in the Triangle Sugar Estates is fitted with crude ladders for use as a watchtower for cane or veld fires (E.C. Strover, personal communication, 1970).

A famous tree in the Caprivi Strip at the home of Major Trollope, Administrator is used as a water closet, complete with flush toilet (D.B. Fanshawe, pers. comm. 1969; E.C. Strover, pers. comm., 1970; Guy, 1971). Near Leydsdorp in the Transvaal the hollow trunk of a baobab serves as a cool room for a tin shack beneath the canopy of the tree that is used as a bar.

Baobab Bark

The bark fibres are commonly completely stripped from the lower trunk yet the tree is able to survive and regenerate new bark. The fibre from the inner bark is particularly strong and durable and is widely used throughout the distribution range of the tree for rope, cordage, harness straps, strings for musical instruments, baskets, nets, snares, fishing lines, fibre, cloth, etc. (Griasard, 1891; Williamson, 1955; Sabri, 1968; Woodruff, 1969; Drar, 1970). In both Senegal and Ethiopia the fibres are woven into waterproof hats that may also serve as drinking vessels (De Wildeman, 1903; Grisard, 1891).

The dried bark was once exported to Europe for the manufacture of packing paper (Dalziel, 1937; Burkill, fined.), and since 1848 it has also been imported into Europe under the name of cortex cael cedra.The gum is odorless, tasteless, acidic and insoluble (Watts, 1889).

The bark has a bitter taste, and there are uncorroborated accounts of the bark being eaten in Senegal. According to Loustalot and Paga (1949) there are no alkaloids present, and accounts from Nigeria are inconclusive (Burkill, fined.). However, according to Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) it contains the alkaloid adansonin.

In some countries the bark is used for tanning. In Congo Brazzaville a bark decoction is used to bathe rickety children and in Tanzania as a mouthwash for toothache (Burkill, ined.). The ash from the bark and fruit toiled in oil is used as a soap (Rock, 1861; Watt, 1889).

Baobab Wood

The wood is light, 53 lb/cu ft wet, c. 13 lb/cu ft air dried (Pardy,1953). It is spongy and easily attacked by fungi; if left in water it disintegrates in about two months, producing long fibres that could be used for packing (Salmi, 1968).

The wood is not easy to cut; the spongy tissues make the axes bounce off rather than cut. It makes poor firewood and charcoal, and is not suitable for cutting into planks. The wood can be used for making wide, light canoes, wooden platters, trays, floats for fishing nets, etc.

The wood pulp has been found suitable for both wrapping and writing paper (Seabra, 1948; Carvalho, 1953) but attempts to exploit the wood for papermaking have so far failed because of the cost of extracting the moisture from the turgid tissues (Mogg, 1950).

see also PhytoTrade Africa, Baobab