African Baobab – Adansonia digitata
Other Names: Upside-down tree, bottle tree, monkey bread tree, dead rat tree, kremetartboom (Afrikaans), movana (Tswana of Botswana), tabaldi, boaboa, isimuku (Zulu), ximuwu (Tsonga), muvhuyu (Venda).
Distinctive Characteristics: The deciduous Baobab dominates the landscape with its majestic presence, standing solitary out on the grasslands. Its branches are almost always concentrated at the top, giving the look of roots reaching into the air, or of a tree planted upside down, especially when bare. Once they reach maturity, their trunks have a distinctively chunky or bloated look, but when young, are thin and inconspicuous. As the trees age, their smooth bark becomes wrinkled and pock-marked, appearing like elephant skin. Measured by trunk circumference, African Baobabs are some of the biggest trees in the world. Baobab wood swells to store water, and mature trees can hold as much as 32,000 gal. (120,000 l) within their spongy tissue. After wounding, they can regenerate bark to some extent. Because they contain up to 75% water, Baobabs collapse into a heap of rotting fiber when they die, decomposing rapidly within a few months to a year. Fortunately, the soft, fiberous wood is useless as lumber.
Distribution: Native to 31 countries on continental Africa. Elevation: below sea level to 3,428 ft. (1,045 m).
Ecosystem: Baobabs live as solitary trees in arid, savanna woodlands and grasslands in Sub-Saharan regions. Occasionally associated with Tamarind, Mopane, and Acacia. Parasitic mistletoe can live in the canopy.
Maximum Age: Estimated at 2,000 years, based on radiocarbon dating, and often exaggerated. Their indeterminate rings make accurate dating impossible; they appear deceptively older than they are because they hold water.
Maximum Height and Girth: Up to 60 ft. (18 m) in height, 118 ft. (36 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: African Baobabs provide habitat and food for many animals in different regions of the continent. Bees often nest in them. Birds supported include the red-crested turacos, great white pelicans, rosy pelicans, bateleur hawks, black-chested snake eagles, secretary birds, brown harriers, Verreaux's eagle owls, barn owls, hammerkops, Marabou's storks, red-winged starlings, gregarious swifts, kingfishers, rollers, barbets, parrots, lovebirds, hornbills, mosque swallows, weavers, bee-eaters, spinetails, honey-guides, and guinea fowls. Reptiles supported include pythons, boomslangs, vipers, mambas, cobras, monitor lizards, baobab geckos, and flapnecked chameleons. Mammals supported include monkeys, baboons, chimpanzees, bush babies, elands, nyalas, kudus, hyenas, porcupines, bush pigs, genets, honey badgers, squirrels and fruit bats. The leaves and twigs are a favorite food of elephants when other food is scarce; they use their tusks to rip off the moist, fibrous bark, and can eat a hole straight through a trunk. Each white, showy flower blooms for one night, hoping to be pollinated by a fruit bat or bush baby in order to produce fruit.
Medicine: The bark, roots, leaves, fruits, flowers, and seeds have been widely used to treat many conditions in, including hemorrhoids, hemorrhaging, colic, dermatitis, acne, burns, high blood pressure, poisoning, viruses, and allergic reaction. Specifically:
Bark: A concoction including the bark was used to treat swollen limbs (Namibia) and sickle-cell anaemia (Nigeria). The stem bark was made a heart tonic with diuretic properties (Nigeria). A bark decoction was gargled for toothaches (Nigeria). Bark resin was rubbed into the roof of the mouth (Ghana). Dried and powdered mashed bark was used to treat malaria. The ash from the burnt bark was made into soap (East and West Africa). The bark was also used to treat male sterility and as an aphrodisiac (Tanzania); to bring down high fever in infants (Tanzania, Kenya); to treat rickets (Malawi, Congo, East Africa); to reduce childbirth pain (Zimbabwe); and to improve night vision (Mali). The bark was made into clothing (West Africa), and waterproof hats that double as drinking vessels (Senegal and Ethiopia).
Leaves: Fresh or dried leaves mixed with oil have been used to treat skin diseases of the head (Somalia). Leaves have also been used to treat rheumatism, external bleeding, as an astringent, and as a salve to treat numbness of the limbs (Senegal); to treat diarrhea, tumors, ear and eye disorders, and inflammation, and as a purgative (West Africa); as a paste to treat parasites (Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria); as a blood cleanser and to treat backache and fatigue (Senegal, Mali).
Flowers: An infusion was made to treat digestive and gynecological disorders (Mali).
Fruit pulp: Has been used as an insect repellent (Nigeria), and to treat external bleeding (Senegal), constipation (Mali, Malawi), nausea (Gambia), smallpox (West Africa), nervous system complaints (Mali), hangovers (Malawi), coughs (Tanzania), measles, and fever.
Seeds: A paste of the crushed and roasted seeds was used to diseased teeth and gums (West Africa) and to treat diarrhea (Ghana). The oil was used to treat pain and eczema (Tanzania); a powdered form was used to treat hiccups (South Africa); and a compress was used to treat sores (Senegal) and fever.
Roots or bark of roots: Used for treating stomachache (Tanzania), urinary disease (Fulani), sore throat (Chewa), mental disorders (Senegal), gynecological disorders (Mali), and asthma (Togo), and to bathe babies for smooth skin.
Gum: Used for treating wounds (Mali, Senegal).
Food: The large gourd-like seedpods contain a dry, sour pulp (that dehydrates naturally inside the pod) high in vitamin C that was made into candy, porridge, or a lemony drink. The seeds were winnowed of their husk and eaten fresh, roasted, dried, fermented or sprouted; they were also pressed for oil. The seedling roots and young leaves were eaten fresh or dried. The flowers and nectar were eaten or made into a drink.
Fiber: The inner bark was harvested to make very strong rope and cordage for mats, hammocks, baskets, netting, fishing and game nets, bark cloth, strings for musical instruments, and hats.
Tools and Objects: The empty pods were used as containers, dishes, drinking cups, spoons, and paint pots. The bark gum was used as an adhesive in Tanzania, and the pollen mixed with water was used to make glue. Strips of bark were used to make beehives. The seeds and burnt ashes of the seeds were used to make soap and hair wash. The Senegalese made a board game out of the seeds.
Art and Ceremony: Baobabs are the focus of much taboo, folklore, and spiritual reverence in Africa, and are often sites of communal meeting or ritual. The blossoms were used as decorations during festivals. Bark fiber was used to make artificial hair for girls' rite-of-passage ceremonies. The large pods were carved and decorated, and made into musical instruments and masks. The roots were made into a dye (East Africa). The seeds were strung onto necklaces (West Africa).
Shelter: These naturally hollow trees have been used as water storage tanks, mailboxes, prisons, pubs, lavatories, storage, shelters, semi-permanent dwellings, watch towers, hunting perches, refuge from predators, shrines, burial sites, stores, bus stops, hideouts—and even trash receptacles.
Modern Uses: The oil is becoming popular for making natural beauty products. It is currently being marketed as a healthy new superfood, in powder form and in naturally sweetened fruit chews, because of its high vitamin C and fiber content. Tea bags of dried powdered leaves are sold as a health food in Europe. Fruit drinks are sold in Malawi and Gambia.
Threats and Conservation: Although their status not officially listed as threatened, Baobabs are threatened by climate change, desertification, and, in some places, deforestation for cattle grazing, agricultural development, and mining. They are a protected species in South Africa.