The Great Baobab

"Baobabs - Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar & Australia"From the book:
"Baobabs - Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar & Australia"
by Gerald E. Wickens & Pat Lowe,
Springer, 2008 -
All Rights Reserved

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" A Caliban of a tree, a grizzled old goblin with a girth of a giant, the hide of a rhinoceros, twiggy fingers clutching at empty air, and the disposition of a guardian angel...   Food for his hunger, water for his thirst, a house to live in, fibre to clothe him, fodder for his flocks, a pot of beer, a rope to hang him, and a tombstone for when he is dead. These are the provisions of the baobab for man "

E. Hill (1940) The Great Australian Loneliness

    The above vivid description by Ernestine Hill of the boab (Adansonia gregorii) from NW Australia could equally apply to the African baobab (A. digitata). There are eight species of Adansonia, one in Africa, six in Madagascar and one in Australia. From the evidence currently available the centre of origin for the genus is Madagascar from whence the fruits of closely related protoboab, transported by the ocean currents, reached Australia.
   The baobab is widely distributed through the savannas and drier regions of Africa and extending into Dhofar but is absent from the east of Lake Chad to the Sudan border. There are two theories to explain this absence, both involving the flooding of the Chad basin during the Pleistocene and the subsequent southward invasion of deep aeolian sand deposits in the Sahel, thus preventing any baobabs becoming established.

Either there was a continuous spread of the baobab across the Sahel that was then severed by Mega Chad or fruits from Namibia/Angola were carried to West Africa by the Benguella current, where the presence of Mega Chad prevented any eastward migration.
     The distribution patterns of other Sahelian species favours the first hypothesis. Hopefully future DNA studies will be able to show where the affinities of the West African population lie.    Of the eight species the African baobab is by far the best known and documented, while the available literature on the other seven species suggest they all have similar attributes, their lack of utilisation reflecting an absence of need due to the availability of other more suitable resources.
    Our early knowledge of the baobab is rather scanty. The pods in the museums of Egyptology at Paris and Turino are of unknown provenance and of doubtful antiquity. There is no evidence from the writings of the Early Egyptians that they had any knowledge of the baobab although it is inconceivable that those who travelled to Punt, etc. failed to notice the baobab en route. From West Africa Ptolemy's name of Stachir for the river Gambia and the present-day Manding name of ‘sita' would appear to suggest a Phoenician/Carthaginian knowledge of the baobab; this is still under investigation.
    From West Africa the fruit of the baobab has been identified in the Book of Roads and Kingdoms by al-Bakri (1068), and the tree from the writings of such early 14th and 15th century travellers as Ibu Battuta, Leo Africanus and Portuguese navigators. Although not yet traced, the first recognisable botanical description of the fruit is reputed to have been by Scaliger under the name of guanabanus. However, credit is usually given to Prospero Alpino (1592) for his excellent woodcut of the fruit and rather confused description of the bahobab in his De plantis aegypti liber. Certainly by the 16th century the savants of Europe writing about the baobab fruit, alias guanabanus, abavo, calabacero, maraca and tomaraka. Some planted the seeds. Others amended Alpino's fanciful description of the leaves.

In 1714 James Sherard and others even planted the baobab in England, where the trees survived until the great frost of 1740
. Even the great botanist Linnaeus is believed to have planted baobab seed at Uppsala. In 1759 Linnaeus validly published the name Adansonia digitata in honour of the French botanist Michel Adanson, who was the first provide a botanical description of the tree, its flowers and fruits. A number of later botanists have recognized varieties and even other species of Adansonia digitata in Africa but, with our present very inadequate knowledge of the variation within the baobab, the recognition of any varietal differences are deemed premature. Full credit for clarifying the present status of the baobab must be given to David Baum for his excellent work on the taxonomy of Adansonia and supporting studies on the cytology, pollination, evolution and phytogeography.
   The baobab is steeped in folklore and history. There are variations on the theme of how, when the world was created, a disgruntled hyena was given a baobab and planted it upside down. Spirits dwell in the tree and have to be placated. The griots – drummers, poets, sorcerers and buffoons – of West Africa are denied burial in the ground and are suspended in hollow baobabs, while in southern Africa the spirits of the tribal chiefs live in the tree. Over the centuries engravings, names and initials, and miscellaneous graffiti have marked the passage of many a traveller, both the great and the insignificant.
    The baobabs provide meeting places, shade and shelter to many a weary traveller. Their hollow trunks places for storing equipment and grain, stables for mules and horses, chapels and shrines, bars, prisons, and flush toilets. In the drier areas they are used for storing water for both settlements and travellers for use during the long dry season. In fact many settlements were established because of the presence of a baobab, the significance of which is often no longer apparent due to the development of alternative water supplies. The baobabs in other settlements clearly owe their origin to exporated seeds.

The trees are a valuable source of nutritious food, rich in minerals, amino acids and vitamins. Sauces for cereal dishes are prepared from the fresh or dried leaves. Those from trees with glabrous leaves are preferred and such trees are often pollarded to ensure a good supply of fresh young leaves. The mealy fruit pulp is much appreciated and is used in drinks, sauces, brewing and as a substitute for cream of tartar in baking. The pulp is an extremely important source of vitamin C, up to ten or more times that of oranges, although there is a wide range of variation between individual trees. In some areas the pulp is an important source of calcium and other minerals. However, the relationship between the mineral content of the fruit and the soil has yet to be elucidated. An edible oil may be extracted from the seeds and, in Senegal, used in ceremonial dishes.

The bark, leaves and fruit are widely used in traditional medicines for a wide range of complaints, especially fevers and dysentery, although their efficacy has not always been clinically proven. The Baobab Fruit Company Sénégal are now marketing a wide range of baobab products for the health market and I can personally testify to the benefits of the fruit pulp for chronic rhinitis. The bark, fruit pulp and seeds are also widely used by hunters as an antidote to Strophanthus arrow poisons, the baobab extract being poured into the arrow wound to neutralise the toxins before eating the meat.
   The bark is capable of rapid regeneration after striping, even after the trunk has been completely ring barked. The bast fibres are still widely used for making strong and durable cordage. Indeed, in Bengal it has given rise to the saying “As secure as an elephant bound with a baobab rope”. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the sun-dried bast fibre and wood was imported to Europe for the manufacture of a strong wrapping paper. Fortunately this practice is no longer economically viable.

   The wood is light, spongy and in concentric layers that can easily be torn apart. It is not durable and fungi easily attack the dead wood. The properties are such that the Hausa epthet for the wood is fanko (= good-for-nothing), although it can still be used for making canoes, wooden platters, trays, floats for fishing nets, etc.
The wood is also difficult to cut; indeed, such is the texture of the wood that an axe can be struck in so far with a good blow that there is great difficulty in extracting it, or the axe bounces back. However, a cable between two caterpillar tractors can be used to saw through the trunk. The technique was used for clearing baobabs from the Zambezi valley during the construction of the Kariba Dam. With hindsight such operation was unnecessary because after Kariba Lake filled, “all the unfelled baobabs promptly floated to the surface as dead as dodos.

  For the naturalist the baobab represents an island ecosystem in an often desertic landscape. Although the tree is instantly identifiable, few people have given it further examination, so that its associated fauna and flora has received far to little attention. For example, the micro-organisms involved in the rapid decay of fallen trees are unknown. Conspicuous and, in the drier regions, often the only sizeable tree available, it is no wonder that it should harbour a rich fauna. A hollow baobab trunk is an obvious lair for many animals, while the spreading branches attract nesting birds. The nooks and crannies of the lumpy bark harbours an abundant insect life yet as a host the baobab has been greatly neglected by non-agricultural entomologists and could be the subject of much fruitful research.

    While there are relatively few reports on pests and diseases of the baobab, its role as hosts for pests and diseases affecting agricultural crops is well documented. Particular attention has been paid its role as host to various pests of cotton and vectors of cocoa viruses,. It is, unfortunately, a victim of its own conspicuousness, especially with regard to cocoa viruses, where often the more numerous but far less conspicuous members of the Bombacoideae, Malvoideae and Sterculioideae are the more common host plants.

    Over time the hollows and cavities in the trunk collect blown dust and debris, forming a rich soil in which air- or bird-bourn seeds may germinate when conditions are moist, forming ephemeral miniature gardens. Once the season changes and the soil dries out, the seedlings usually die.

While still too numerous to be considered an endangered species, it has been threatened in some regions by large-scale clearances for irrigation and mechanised agricultural development schemes and, in the drier regions, by desertification. There appears to be little natural regeneration although this is often overlooked because the slender young saplings bear simple instead of the familiar digitate leaves. Since the tree is long-lived, little recruitment is required to maintain existing populations. Never-the-less vigilance and careful monitoring must be maiontained.
    It is 50 years ago when, on my first posting in Northern Nigeria, I was sent to Dogon Daji. In the village there was a magnificent baobab beneath whose shade the men would sit and talk during the day and where, in the evening, the women would bring trays of sweetmeats and other delicacies for sale in the twinkling light of numerous oil lamps constructed from small condensed milk tins. I was hooked!

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