A Profile of African Baobabs
The baobab tree is a mystical species rooted in African culture. Renowned for its nutritional and healing powers, it is also emblematic for being one of the longest living trees growing to incredible sizes.
Although it has a trunk, leaves, and roots, the baobab looks nothing like any other tree. Fat and squat, their most distinctive feature is their enormous girth. Their gnarled and bulging trunks can grow to circumferences of 25 meters or more and rise to some 30 meters.
It’s a strange, beautiful and lonely tree that when seen on the horizon will make you smile and think of a sturdy bottle with twigs planted in the cork. With a very often hollow trunk, its tortuous branches spread upwards like roots growing towards the sky. Hence its nickname, the upside-down tree.
There are eight species of baobabs recorded in the world. One lives on the African continent, one other grows in Australia, and six grow only in Madagascar.
Around for millennia, it was the French explorer Michel Adanson, who in August 1749, stopped in awe before the baobabs on Gorée Island, named Sor Island at the time, off the coast of Dakar and reported back to the botanists of Europe. He wrote of the experience: “I saw a tree whose prodigious grandeur attracted my attention: it was a calabash, otherwise called monkey bread, which the Wolofs call goui in their language.”
The scientific name of the African baobab, Adansonia digitata, is so called after Adanson and is the most widespread of the Adansonia species, native to the African continent.
In botany, these species are attached to the family of Bombacaceae. Its massive trunk is unique in the vegetable kingdom. It’s not uncommon for a tree to be as wide as it is high from the baobab of Fissel, east of Mbour, whose trunk measures 22.09 m in circumference, to the ‘sacred Baobab’ of Nianing near Joal Fadiouth with a 32 meters circumference. An opening in the trunk large enough to fit a grown man makes it a popular tourist site in Senegal. The hollow trunk is large enough to fit around ten people.
A variety of majestic trees mark Senegal’s landscape and include coronation and constitution trees, tree altars and cemeteries, and, most importantly, palaver trees (pénc in Wolof), trees which stand proud and tall in the central village public squares. Many of these historic trees still exist today and, at last count, the Ministry of Culture classified sixteen of them as historical monuments.
Baobabs have few leaves, which then fall during the dry season.The baobabs produce large oblong-shaped fruits called bouye in Wolof. The seeds encased in a whitish pulp, are protected by a hard shell, covered with a brown skin and soft as velvet.
The baobab swells and shrinks depending on the dry or wet season as it stores water in its spongy trunk. Unfortunately, this survival technique makes it difficult for botanists to carbon date the trees usually done by counting the concentric circles as in the trunks of other trees. Through stories and tales told by griots and villagers, it’s fair to say that baobab can live for hundred of years.