Baobab is the common name of a genus (Adansonia) containing eight species of trees, native to Madagascar (having six species), mainland Africa and Australia (one species in each). The mainland African species also occurs on Madagascar, but it is not a native of that country.
Other common names include boab, boaboa, bottle tree, upside-down tree, and monkey bread tree. The species reach heights of and trunk diameters of . A specimen in Limpopo Province, South Africa, often considered the largest example alive, has a circumference of and an average diameter of .
Some baobabs are reputed to be many thousands of years old, which is difficult to verify as the wood does not produce annual growth rings, though radiocarbon dating may be able to provide age data.
The Malagasy species are important components of the Madagascar dry deciduous forests. Within that biome, A. madagascariensis and A. rubrostipa occur specifically in the Anjajavy Forest, sometimes growing out of the tsingy limestone itself.
Beginning in 2008, there has been increasing interest for developing baobab as a nutrient-rich raw material for consumer products.
The name Adansonia honours Michel Adanson, the French naturalist and explorer who described A. digitata.
Baobabs store water
inside the swollen trunk (up to ) to endure the harsh drought conditions particular to each region. All occur in seasonally arid
areas, and are deciduous
, shedding their leaves
during the dry season.
The leaves are commonly used as a leaf vegetable throughout the area of mainland African distribution, including Malawi, Zimbabwe, and the Sahel. They are eaten both fresh and as a dry powder. In Nigeria, the leaves are locally known as kuka, and are used to make kuka soup.
The fruit is nutritious possibly having more vitamin C than oranges and exceeding the calcium content of cow's milk. Also known as "sour gourd" or "monkey's bread", the dry fruit pulp separated from seeds and fibers is eaten directly or mixed into porridge or milk. In Malawi, the fruit pulp is used to make a nutrient-rich juice.
The fruit was once used in the production of tartar sauce. In various parts of East Africa, the dry fruit pulp is covered in sugary coating (usually with red coloring) and sold in packages as a sweet and sour candy called "boonya" or "bungha".
The seeds are mostly used as a thickener for soups, but may also be fermented into a seasoning, roasted for direct consumption, or pounded to extract vegetable oil. The tree also provides a source of fiber, dye, and fuel.
Indigenous Australians used baobabs as a source of water and food, and used leaves medicinally. They also painted and carved the outside of the fruits and wore them as ornaments. A very large, hollow baobab south of Derby, Western Australia was used in the 1890s as a prison for Aboriginal convicts on their way to Derby for sentencing. The Boab Prison Tree still stands and is now a tourist attraction.
The whole fruit of the baobab is not available in the EU as current EU legislations from 1997 dictate that foods not commonly consumed in the EU have to be formally approved before going on sale. On 15 July 2008, the EU approved parts of the fruit for use in smoothies and cereal bars. Traditional uses of the whole fruit are unlikely outside of Africa as the fruit will be processed for export as a white powder with a cheese-like texture to be used as an ingredient in products.
Culture and myths
- The national tree of Madagascar.
- Used for bonsai (the most popular being A. digitata).
- Known colloquially as "upside-down tree", it is cited in African lore: after creation, each of the animals was given a tree to plant and the hyena planted the baobab upside-down.
- Tabaldi is the name of the Baobab tree in Sudan and its fruit is Gongalis. Baobab's trunk is used as a tank to store water. People in west Sudan use the hollow in the trunk to save water in the rain season. Gongalis is used to make juice or use to cure stomach and other diseases.
- Bark may have been used hundreds of years ago in Africa as a backscratcher or toothbrush.
- Having a distinctive foul smell, tree parts may have been used by primitive tribes to ward off evil spirits, making the tree known in African folklore as "God's Thumb."
- Rafiki, in The Lion King, makes his home in a baobab tree.
- Ernst Haeckel mentions "monkey bread-fruit trees (Adansonia)" in his The History of Creation (Chap. 29), and claims that their "individual life exceeds a period of five thousand years".
- The owners of Sunland Farm in Limpopo, South Africa have built a pub called "The Big Baobab Pub" inside the hollow trunk of a high baobab. The tree, which is 47m (155ft) in circumference, is reported to have been carbon dated at over 6,000 years old.
- Baobabs are cited in the Little Prince as a tree that may "split" a small planet into pieces.
- Braun, K. (1900) Beiträge zur Anatomie der Adansonia digitata L. F. Reinhardt, Universitäts-Buchdruckerei, Basel, OCLC 15926986
- Baum, D. A., Small, R. L., & Wendel, J. F. (1998). Biogeography and floral evolution of baobabs (Adansonia, Bombacaceae) as inferred from multiple data sets. Systematic Biology 47 (2): 181-207.
- Pakenham, T. (2004). Remarkable Baobab. Norton, New York, ISBN 0-297-84373-7
- Jardin Botanique et Pepiniere: Baobab species details
- Jardin Botanique et Pepiniere: Baobab photo gallery
- Madagascar info: Baobab photo gallery (Malagasy species only)
- King's American Dispensatory: Baobab: herbal information
- Baobab - Adansonia digitata, Scientific Papers & Monographies
- Baobab leaves: from "Celtnet Herb Guide"
- Colin, Tudge (2006, 2005). The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter. 1st U.S. edition, New York, NY: Crown Publishers.
- Lowe, Pat The Boab Tree. Port Melbourne, Australia: Lothian.
- Pakenham, Thomas (2004). The Remarkable Baobab. 1st American edition, New York, NY: Norton.
- Watson, Rupert (2007). The African Baobab. Cape Town, South Africa; London, England: Struik; New Holland.
- Wickens, G. E.; Lowe, Pat (2008). The Baobabs: Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar and Australia. Berlin, Germany; New York, NY: Springer Verlag.