Baobab trees are associated with many colourful stories. In African folklore, the tree is sometimes called the upside-down tree because the gods thought it was too boastful, so they pulled it out and planted it upside down to teach it a lesson. It also is called "The Tree of Life" because it provides so many services for our survival.
There are 8 different baobab species all in the scientific genus Adansonia. They are medium to large deciduous trees and are among the most long-lived of vascular plants with ages of over 1500 years as determined by radiocarbon dating techniques.
The trees range in size from 5 to 30m depending on the species. They often have swollen trunks, which may be composed of multiple stems in some species. These multi-stemmed trunks can fuse over time resulting in extraordinary circumference shapes.
The bark of the baobab tree is self-regenerative.
Flowers show a variety of colours and shapes, as do the fruit.
The tree featured in the image at the top of the page is Adansonia grandidieri, one of the most striking tree shapes in the world with its very tall, elongated and swollen trunk and its foliage confined to the very top portion of the trunk. Images of other baobabs in the gallery below.
6 of the 8 recognised species are endemic to Madagascar, one to mainland parts of Africa and one to Australia (where they are usually referred to boab trees). There have historically been instances of baobab seeds being distributed to other areas e.g. India, often associated with the African slave trade diaspora. More recently, they have been deliberately introduced to a number of Asian and Middle East locations for street-scaping purposes.
Baobab trees are typically found in savanna ecosystems. Optimal growth conditions are average day temperatures ranging from 20°C to 35°C, annual rainfall between 300 and 500 mm almost all in the wet season, and sandy topsoil overlaying loamy subsoil. However, the African baobab may withstand much lower and more irregular rainfall conditions (90-1500 mm) and grow on more poorly drained soils with a heavy texture, though not on deep sands probably due to the lack of anchorage for its massive body. It cannot withstand seasonal flooding, prolonged water-logging or severe frosts.
Baobab trees are eaten by a wide variety of organisms in its habitat. Animals like baboons eat the seed pods (and warthogs clean up bits that fall), fruit bats and lemurs drink its nectar, and elephants have been reported to gouge out parts of the trunk for its moisture and nutrients. It also is predated on by fungi and bacteria.
Pollination of the Adansonia flowers is carried by fruit bats, lemurs, hawkbill moths depending on species and location.
Shelter for animals - Buffalo weaver birds are commonly build their nests in the huge branches; and barn owls and ground-hornbills roost in the many hollows. The creased trunks and hollowed interiors also provide homes to various reptiles, insects and bats. Honeybees commonly nest in baobabs, making their hives in clefts or holes in the trunk.
Fresh baobab leaves provide an edible vegetable similar to spinach. The leaves are also dried and ground to a powder which is nutritious and keeps well.
The pulp found in the seed pods is added to water to make a variety of drinks and dishes.
In addition to water held in it spongy trunk pulp for its own needs, baobabs store water in natural hollows between branches and on the outside for the trunk. In very arid areas, people often cut hollows into baobabs to create storage ‘wells’ to catch rainwater.
The bark and flesh are soft, fibrous, and fire-resistant and can be used to weave rope, mats, baskets, musical instruments & strings, and waterproof hats.
The seed can be processed to produce oil which is then incorporated into cosmetic products.
Baobab products are also used to make soap, rubber, and glue.
Also the bark and leaves are harvested for traditional medicine to treat kidney and bladder disease, asthma, and insect bites.
It also has been made into toys and and arts and crafts. And inspired art based on its form.
Cultural and recreational services
Baobabs are, in some places, regarded as symbol for community spirit and are a gathering place for ceremonies and rituals. Various Baobabs have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn, a chapel, a smuggler's hideout and a hotel. In Western Australia, there was a boab tree in Derby that was regularly used as a "prison cell" in the 1890s by the local police to lock up Aboriginal prisoners over night, on their way to Derby for sentencing. The hollow tree trunk has a circumference of over 14 metres and a door a metre wide and two metres high was carved into it.
Baobab trees are so significant to locals that many of them have been given names and have back stories e.g. in the Kafue National Park in Zambia, one of the largest baobabs is known as 'Kondanamwali' - the tree that eats maidens. This enormous tree fell in love with the four beautiful girls who lived in its shade. When they reached puberty, they sought husbands and made the tree jealous. One night, during a raging thunderstorm, the tree opened its trunk and imprisoned the maidens inside.
Baobabs have been officially commemorated on stamps and been featured on Senegal's coat of arms.
Baobabs are tourist attractions - in Madagascar, there is an Avenue of Baobabs that brings tourists from all over the world.
Summary of services provided for us
- Carbon caption and storage
- Food products
- Raw materials for made products
- Services for ecosystem stability
- Cultural heritage and recreational opportunity
Threats to the services?
Adansonia suarezensis (as at 2015) and Adansonia grandidieri (as of 2016) have a IUCN Redlist status of Endangered. EN
Adansonia perrieri is Critically Endangered as of 2018 CR
Populations for all three species were listed as decreasing in numbers as of the time of the declaration.
Recent die offs
Adrian Patrut, a Romanian professor of inorganic and radiochemistry, and colleagues used radiocarbon dating to analyse more than 60 of the largest and oldest baobab trees in Africa to try to find out how the trees could grow so large and so old. During the survey, which started in 2005, the researchers noticed that nine of the 13 oldest, and five of the six largest baobabs had died, or at least their oldest parts had collapsed and died during the study period.
The death of the majority of the oldest and largest African baobabs over the past 12 years is an event of an unprecedented portent. These demises were not caused by an epidemic and there has also been a rapid increase in the apparently natural death of many other mature baobabs. We suspect that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions which affect especially southern Africa. However, further research is necessary to support or to infirm (sic) this supposition.1
Baobab bark is harvested by humans for a variety of purposes e.g. making rope etc. The tree is hardy and the bark regenerates, but if overharvesting occurs, it can lead to tree death.
What can we do to retain these services?
Support organisations such as the Baobab Foundation which rewilds seedlings and offers education programs.
If you purchase baobab products, enquire what steps have been taken to ensure the harvesting of the raw products is sustainable.
Lobby politicians and large corporations to adopt the recommendations of the IPCC 2022 report and drastically curb emissions from fossils that are damaging our environment globally.
- The demise of the largest and oldest African baobabs
- Baobab Foundation
- Baobab trees have more than 300 uses but they’re dying in Africa
- Vulnerability of baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) to human disturbances and climate change in western Tigray, Ethiopia: Conservation concerns and priorities