The Beautiful Baobab

Death is a low chemical trick played on everybody except baobab trees.
– JJ Furnas

The origin of the name baobab is uncertain. Some have suggested that it comes from “bu hobab,” a name used for the plant in the markets of Cairo. Or perhaps it was derived from “bu hibab,” an Arabic designation for “the fruit with many seeds.” The trees are related to the kapok and the balsa. There are 6 species of baobab trees in Madagascar, 1 in Africa and 2 elsewhere (including Australia and Vietnam).
The baobab trees (called renala by inhabitants of Madagascar) are present almost everywhere on the island, except in the highlands and rain forest. They are most prevalent in the dry savannah of the West.

For centuries, much of what was known about baobabs was based exclusively on the African baobab (A digitata). The first recorded reference was by 14th-century Arab traveller Ibn Batuta who mentions the water-storage capacity of its massive trunk. In 1661 the writer Flacourt praised the giants – speaking about the area of Morondava, he wrote: “It is in this region that exists a tree named Anadzahé, which is monstrously stupendously large. It is hollow inside and 12 feet in diameter, round, ending in an archway like the bottom of a lamp. There are only a few small branches here and there on top. The tree is a wonder to be seen.”

Sometimes called the “upside-down tree” because of their unusual root-like branch formations, baobabs are extremely long-lived. Some specimens are believed to be more than 3,000 years old. (Two trees on an island off Cape Verde were estimated to be over 5,000 years old. Those trees have since disappeared, however, so the claim can no longer be verified.)

Girth measurements themselves are not reliable estimates of a particular tree’s age, as the conditions under which it has grown – and the climatic fluctuations of the centuries – strongly affect them – some years, they can decrease in size. There is no such thing as a “typical” baobab.
Inside its shell, the tree’s fruit contains a number of seeds, embedded in a whitish, powdery pulp. Tangy and exceedingly nutritious, the pulp makes a tasty food or, after soaking in water or milk, a refreshing beverage (with 6 times the vitamin C content of an orange). Fermented, it makes a traditional brew.
The seeds may be eaten raw or roasted. They yield an edible oil which is used for cooking and exported for use in cosmetics. The leaves, similar to spinach, are eaten as a relish, especially in times of drought and are considered medicinal – they reduce fever and diarrhœa. The pollen of the African and Australian baobabs is mixed with water to make glue.
The wood has a moisture content of 40%, making it unusuable as timber (which is lucky for the tree because it keeps it from being harvested) but the fibrous bark can be made into baskets, rugs, fishing nets, hats, ropes and the like. The tree seems impervious to having its bark stripped.

Baobab (called kuka trees in Nigeria) flower for the first time at about 20 years. In mid-summer, dozens of luminous white blossoms – the size of saucers – open at sunset and their strong musky odour attracts fruit bats and hosts of insects. Large bats seek out the generous sweet nectar and collect and distribute pollen as they move from flower to flower.

The life of a flower is short lived and it drops to the ground within hours. The resultant seeds are housed in a hairy pod which resembles a miniature rugby ball (inside of which is a white pulp from which cream of tartar is derived). Once they fall to the ground, the pods are fed upon by baboons, monkeys, antelope and elephants, which serve to disperse the hard seeds within. Humans eat them as well.

Bushbabys, squirrels, rodents, lizards, snakes, tree frogs, spiders, scorpions and insects may live out their entire lives in a single tree. Birds nest in holes in the trunk. The hollow trunks of living trees have served as homes, storage barns, places of refuge or worship, and even as prisons or tombs. One tree near Gravelotte in South Africa’s Northern Province was used as a bar where up to a dozen thirsty gold diggers could quench their thirst.

Certain tribes in the Transvaal wash baby boys in water soaked in the bark of a baobab. Then, like the tree, they will grow up mighty and strong. To this day the baobab remains at the centre of black magic rituals on the islands where they are found. Most waganga will take their subjects to a special tree, where they may tie ornaments to the branches to give a spell its power, hammer nails into the trunk to kill devils, or climb and sit in the branches whilst carrying out various ceremonies.

The wood being soft, it is subject to attacks of fungus which destroy its life, and renders the part affected easily hollowed out. This is done by natives, and within these hollows they suspend the dead bodies of those who are refused the honor of burial. There they become mummies – perfectly dry and well preserved – without any further preparation of embalmment.
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