Baobabs – The Botanical Giants of Africa

Even more reverent and iconic than Africa’s Big Five, Baobabs are the true titans of Africa. As the title would suggest, Baobabs are impressive in size, with some reaching up to 30 m in height.

It is difficult to truly appreciate the size of these trees until you are standing at its base, feeling infinitesimal. Some of these baobabs are 3 000 years old, witnesses, of Africa’s history.

The Unusual Appearance of the Baobab

These trees are unusual and strange, in the most striking way.  The massive trunk is almost luster in appearance. Its large, white flowers hang upside down. For the majority of its life, the branches of the baobab are bare. This, along with the unique shapes of the branches gives them the appearance of roots. Its unique appearance has birthed many legends and folklore. In the Zambezi, it is believed that the baobab trees used to stand upright, until the gods were angered by them and uprooted the baobabs to turn them upside down – roots reaching into the sky. In the Transvaal area, some tribes bathe their young boys in water that baobab bark has soaked in so that they might grow mighty as the tree.

Baobab - Ecotraining - The Botanical Giants of Africa

However, the baobab should not just be praised for its appearance but for its sustenance too. Its soft and pulpy wood, commonly called heartwood, has a high moisture content, which provides relief to animals during the dry seasons. The tree is often ringbarked by elephants but proves resilient by repairing the damage quickly, a feat not seen in many trees. In older baobabs, the heartwood dies naturally creating cavities in the tree, which become home for many small animals like birds and reptiles. The cavities can also collect and store rainwater, gifting a drinkable water source to larger animals such as genets, apes, and people.

Unique Pollinators

The blossoming period of the flowers isn’t even the most unique aspect, but rather the pollinators. The straw-colored fruit bat is nocturnal and feasts on the flowers that conveniently only bloom at night. The pollen sticks to their coats and they distribute it to other baobabs throughout the night.

Baobab - Ecotraining - The Botanical Giants of Africa

Baobab Uses

The baobab remains important to us as well. The bark is used as yarn to make fishing nets and ropes. Its leaves are a good substitute for spinach and have medicinal properties, used to treat fevers and diarrhea. The pulp of its fruit is an excellent substitute for yeast and can also be used to treat fevers. In some ways, baobab trees are trees of giving.

It is the unfortunate truth that these magnificent trees are far and few between, now only found in select areas of Africa and Australia. These incomparable trees have a lesson to share not just in beauty and generosity, but also in respect. They are giant, ancient titans that will hopefully continue living.

How to Plant a Baobab

In this Flora Friday video, we decided to plant our favourite tree, The Baobab. Watch as instructor Sean Robertson shows us how to plant a Baobab.

About the Author: 

Tristan Govender is an EcoTraining Media Intern and Blogger.