Baobab (African) – Adansonia digitata
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Distribution: Native to 31 countries on continental Africa; cultivated in Madagascar, India, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
Ecosystem: Live as solitary trees in arid, savannah woodlands and grasslands in Sub-Saharan regions.
Maximum age: Unknown and often overestimated; well over 2,000 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: Up to 60 ft (18.3 m) in height and up to 119 ft (36.3 m) in girth.
Also known as: Upside down tree, boab tree, bottle tree, monkey bread tree, dead rat tree, kremetartboom (Africaans), movana (Tswana of Botswana), among thousands of other indigenous names.
Distinctive Characteristics: This species of baobab is the only baobab species endemic to continental Africa, and it is very widespread. Once baobabs have reached maturity, they have a distinctively chunky, or bloated, look to them, and stand out on the flat grasslands, dominating the landscape with their majestic presence. As the trees age, their smooth bark becomes wrinkled and lumpy, like elephant skin, which makes them easy to climb. They are often sites of communal meeting or ritual. Baobabs are often the center of folklore, myths, and superstitions, depending on their region of origin. Their branches are almost always concentrated at the top, giving the look of roots, or a tree planted upside-down. One of many legends of the baobab is that God gave the Hyena the task of planting the baobab. However, since the Hyena is a coward, lazy, and not too bright (or, in some tales, spiteful), he consequently planted it with its roots in the air, giving it the name “the upside-down tree.”
Measured by trunk girth, African Baobabs are some of the biggest trees in the world, and many have been declared national monuments. Baobab wood swells to store water, and mature trees can hold as much as 32,000 gallons (120,000 liters) within the spongy tissue. Because the wood is soft and fibrous, it is thankfully useless as lumber. Their indeterminate rings make accurate dating impossible. Since they contain up to 75 percent water, baobabs collapse into a heap of rotting fiber when they die, decomposing within a few months.
Animal Community: African Baobabs provide habitat and food for many mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, including monkeys, baboons, bush babies, monkeys, fruit bats, eland, nyala, kudu hyenas, porcupines, bush pigs, genets and squirrels, pythons, and cobras. Bees will nest in them, and honey badgers will collect the honey. Each individual showy, white flower blooms for one night, only to be pollinated by a fruit bat or bush baby in order to produce fruit. The leaves and twigs are a favorite food of elephants when food is scarce; they use their tusks to rip off the moist, fibrous bark, and can eat a hole straight through a trunk! Although there have been incidences of baobabs collapsing on top of hungry elephants, the effects of their browsing is rarely fatal.
Medicine: The bark, roots, leaves, fruits, and seeds have been widely used for medicinal applications for both people and animals, including: for reducing fever, for dysentery, for hemorrhaging, as a heart tonic, as an antihistamine, for cleansing wounds, dermatitis, acne, burns and sores, for rheumatism, for neurological disorders, for hiccups, for rickets, as a poison neutralizer, for constipation, as a pregnancy and birthing aid, for eye disorders, for asthma, for tumors, as an anti-inflammatory, as an antiviral, to reduce swelling, as a diuretic, for anemia, for high blood pressure, for toothaches, for stomach disorders, as an anti-malarial, for mental disorders, and as an aphrodisiac.
Food: The large gourd-like seedpods contain a dry, sour center high in vitamin C that is made into candy, porridge, or a lemony drink; the seeds can be roasted; and the young leaves and seedling roots can be eaten. The seeds can be pressed for cooking oil.
Fiber: The inner bark is harvested to make very strong rope and cordage for mats, hammocks, baskets, netting, fishing and game nets, strings for musical instruments, and hats.
Tools and Objects: The empty pods are used as containers, dishes, drinking cups, spoons, and paint pots. The bark gum is used as an adhesive in Tanzania, and the pollen mixed with water is also used to make glue. Strips of bark are used to make beehives. The seeds and burnt ashes of the seeds were used to make soap and shampoo. The Senegalese make a board game out of the seeds.
Art and Ceremony: The baobab as an iconic symbol of Africa is well used as emblems in artwork. The roots, bark, and fruit fiber have been used to make dyes. The blossoms are used for decorating during festivals. The empty pods have been made into musical instruments and masks.
Shelter: The naturally hollow trees have been used as water storage tanks, mailboxes, prisons, pubs, lavatories, storage, shelters, hunting perches, shrines, burial sites, stores, bus stops, hide outs—even trash receptacles!
Modern Uses: The oil is becoming popular for making natural beauty products.
Threats: Although not officially endangered, African baobabs are threatened by climate change, and in some places, deforestation for cattle grazing and agriculture.