“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 Baobab tree is a true icon of Africa, but perhaps even of humanity. No other African tree is regarded with equal love and reverence as the majestic Baobab. Where ever it is found, it is treated with respect and protected.They have been incorporated into ritual systems and are surrounded by myth and mystery.
When I started to write this article on the baobab I had no idea where it would take me. It is one of the wonderful aspects of working with, and exploring African Botanicals; it always leads you down unexpected pathways, back into the mists of time.
There are eight species of Baobab, of which 6 only occur on the island of Madagascar. Madagascar is the center of diversity for the genus and from the evidence currently available, appears to be the centre of origin of the genus. The six species found in Madagascar are the Adansonia grandidieri, A. madagascariensis, A. suaresensis, A. perrieri, A. rubrostipa.and the Adansonia za. The widely spread African baobab is Adansonia digitata. Adansonia digitata is also found in Madagascar but it appears that they arrived at a later date, possibly via the Arab traders. (Ref)
Adansonia gibbosa (previously gregorii) is only found in northwestern Australia; how it arrived there is still a source of much debate. According to most authorities the Australian Baobab appears to have been originally transported by the ocean currents from Madagascar to Australia, however recent molecular analysis has demonstrated that the Australian baobab is very closely related to the African baobab. They are closer to each other than either is to any of the other six species. They are so close that the DNA sequences used are not capable of separating them or of providing a reliable date for their separation. (Ref)
The oceanic currents are also unfavourable for the observed dispersal pattern and A.gibbosa is not present at other locations on the North-West Australian coast where it would readily grow and where oceanic dispersal would be expected to have delivered seeds. It is speculated that the Australian baobabs may have originated from seed pods carried for food either by coastal movements of early human migrations out of Africa around 60-70,000 years ago. The geographical distribution of the Australian Kimberley species overlaps almost perfectly the ancient rock art known as Bradshaw paintings. One of the most striking things about these paintings is that they are remarkably reminiscent of modern African culture. The Wandjina paintings are endemic to this area of Australia. It seems very likely that stone-age African oceanic migrants might have chosen such a useful cargo as baobab. Baobab bark fibre has also been used in Africa to make boats. (Ref)
Elsewhere, beyond Africa’s shores, the baobab can be found in India, Sri Lanka, Ceylon and some can even be found scattered across tropical America. The Baobabs found around the Indian Ocean is also thought to have been carried there from Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries or perhaps even earlier by Arab traders. The Baobabs in tropical America appears to have arrived there from Africa during the times of the slave trade. (Ref)
Even in Africa the distribution of the baobab owes much more to human rather than natural history. (Ref) Where they are linked to village communities they have considerable economic and spiritual importance and it is reasonable to assume they were translocated by human action, perhaps long before agriculture. Vernacular names for the baobab suggest considerable antiquity in Africa. (Ref)
Looking at the map of the worldwide distribution of the baobab it is remarkable how closely it resembles the early migrations and trade routes of humanity. There is no doubt that where ever you find a baobab it is always intimately linked with humanity. Its intimate relationship with people is beautifully described in “Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III”
Luckily most generations will not have to mourn the death of their family guardian, as the baobab can live for millennia. The Chinese say that, “it is a wise man whose grandfather planted trees,” but due to the great age baobabs can reach, to plant a baobab is to touch not just the grandchildren but history itself. A baobab can provide its multifarious benefits for generations to come. If we count a generation as a full lifespan from birth to death with an average of 72 years, a thousand years would span about 13 generations.
The actual age of baobabs is however difficult to determine as although the soft, fibrous wood is arranged in concentric layers most authorities claim that baobabs do not form annual rings. The absorbent nature of the wood structure also precludes the use of the baobab for conventional dendroclimatology or X-ray densitometry. The only reliable method to determine the age of a baobab is through radio carbon dating. Currently the oldest reliably dated baobab was Grootboom in Namibia that has been dated to more than 1275 years old; estimated being1350–1500 years. Sadly Grootboom fell victim to a still mysterious disease in 2004 and then died and collapsed in 2005. When baobabs die they collapse and virtually disappear without trace in one year, which adds to the mystique that surrounds them. (Ref)
The famous Sunland Baobab in Mooketsi, thought to be the oldest baobab, and previously estimated to be around 6 000 years old, was recently radio carbon dated to approximately 1 100 years old. It is however believed that past fires, coupled with the cavitation process within the tree, most likely erased the oldest elements of the tree, thus the actual age still remains a mystery. (Ref)
Planting a baobab is considered a “life-insurance planting” in Africa that can provide permanent food security for a village, a valley, or a vast region. Rightfully called the “Tree of Life,” Jack Pettigrew speculates that the very survival of humanity may have been facilitated by the Baobab. In a thought provoking article he reasons that the baobab could have been instrumental in the survival of the few remaining humans during a population bottleneck of our species. Roughly 74,000 years ago, a super volcano erupted in Sumatra. This super volcano is known as Mount Toba. In 1993, science journalist Ann Gibbons first suggested a link between the eruption and a bottleneck in human evolution. Genetic evidence suggests that all humans alive today are descended from a very small population, perhaps between 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs about 70,000 years ago. It is speculated that a volcanic winter triggered by the Toba event could have largely destroyed the food supplies of humans and therefore caused a possible population bottleneck. Recent analyses of mitochondrial DNA have set the estimate for the major migration from Africa to about 60,000–70,000 years ago, in line with dating of the Toba eruption to around 66,000–76,000 years ago. During the subsequent tens of thousands of years, the descendants of these migrants populated East Asia (60 000 – 50 000), Australia (50 000), Europe (40 000), and finally the Americas (15 000). (Ref)
According to Jack Pettigrew the extraordinary resilience of the baobab, and especially the longevity of its pods, might have ensured a supply of food that was obtainable during volcanic winter which could have made the difference between life and death, and therefore the baobab might actually have been responsible for the survival of humans on the planet.. Keep in mind that the Toba event occurred in the days before harvests, granaries and prescient Josephs.
This speculation does not seem so improbable when you look at the venerable history of the baobab in Africa, the cradle of mankind, and the remarkable qualities of the baobab – a veritable ark of humanity.
The baobab is capable of recovering fully from extensive damage, including fire, ring barking, and root removal, any of which would kill most other trees. Because of this remarkable resilience, humans have been able to harvest all parts of the tree with impunity for many generations, and they have come to depend on it as a reliable supplier of nourishment and materials year after year. (Ref)
The fruits remain edible far past the point where other fruits would have decayed into putrefaction, a feature especially important for times of famine because they are still edible at times when other sustenance is hard to secure. The impervious rind and the dryness of the pulp are probably the major features behind this life-saving resistance to rot. The soft, pale, powdery pulp is extremely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin C, calcium, vitamin B complex, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and complex carbohydrates, earning it a reputation as a “superfruit”. The label on a commercially packaged version now sold across Europe records that 100 g of it provides protein (5 g), carbohydrate (30 g), energy (130 calories), and fiber. In terms of daily nutritional needs100 g of dried baobab fruit pulp also supplies 25 percent of provitamin A, 500 percent vitamin C, 34 percent thiamine (B1), 17 percent riboflavin (B2), and 106 percent vitamin B6. As to mineral requirements, it provides 33 percent of the calcium, 26 percent of the phosphorus, and 50 percent of the iron needed each day Moreover its protein has a spectacular amino-acid profile, including surprising quantities of such essential nutritional rarities as lysine (15g per 100g of the protein), methionine (5g), cystine (11g), and tryptophan (1.5g). Nutritionally speaking, this strange chalky fruit-powder is like nature’s own fortified food (Ref)
West African pastoralists—the Fulanis, for example—use it to acidify a yogurt-like material that is a major food. Known as nono, this yogurt/baobab combination is said to relax the nerves after a hard day tending the flock or the field. Millions consider this pick-me-up a necessary part of getting through the afternoons. The acid pith is used as a substitute for cream of tartar in baking, The pulp is also beaten into thin pancakes, which on exposure to the sun turn into dry disks, it can be stacked up like dinner plates and stored away for months or even years. (Ref)
The seed kernels represent a second, separate source of nutrients. The clusters of seeds are embedded in the pulp packets. During food emergencies these kernels that taste like almonds, become a life-saving staple, both because they store well and because they are exceptionally rich in protein, food energy, and micronutrients. They are approximately the size of fat beans and have a hard shell. Just how long the seeds remain viable is unknown, but it exceeds five years. Proximate analyses (dry-weight basis) indicate they can be up to a third crude protein and a third fat, with nearly 10 percent crude fiber. The “baobab nut” contains more protein than peanuts and its protein appears rich in lysine, methionine, cysteine, and tryptophan. Moreover, some kernels can contain more oil than soybeans, and that oil provides a fairly good measure of unsaturation; nearly 90 percent of the oil is oleic, palmitic, and linoleic acid in almost equal parts. The seeds can also be cooked to provide a substitute for coffee. (Ref)
In West Africa the tree’s leaves are among the most valued vegetables. Fresh baobab leaves provide an edible vegetable similar to spinach. In nutritional power baobab leaf is quite surprising. According to various reports it contains 11 to 17 percent crude protein and with an amino-acid composition comparing favorably with that considered the ultimate for human nutrition. Isoleucine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine all occur in adequate amounts. The leaves contribute a protein of vital quality. In addition, the levels of both riboflavin and vitamin C have proved adequate in the leaf samples tested so far. The young and tender baobab leaves contain good levels of provitamin A, and it is notable that the trees thrive in the kind of dry and impoverished locales where a lack of vitamin A constitutes one of the worst nutritional deficiencies. However to maintain a high level of provitamin A level in dried leaves, it is important not to dry the leaves in the sun. Leaves dried in the sun have only half the provitamin A levels of leaves dried in the shade.
The wood contains some tannin, and the acid pith is used to coagulate rubber. The roots, when boiled, produce a red-purple dye that is suitable for dying fabric. Glue can be made by mixing flower pollen with water.
The shells of the fruit are used to make bowls, cups, snuffbox, fishing float and jars. When polished with sand, they can be carved or painted, and are said to keep water cool far better than glass or plastic bottles. The powdered husk or penducule may be smoked as a tobacco substitute or added to snuff to increase pungency. Ash from the shell, bark and seed, rich in potash, is widely used in making soap, prepared by boiling the bark and fruit ash in oil. The pulp extract can be used as a hair wash. (Ref)
The universal symbol of The Tree of Life symbolizes many things, including wisdom, protection, strength, bounty, beauty, regeneration and redemption. All of these qualities are reflected in the qualities of the baobab. In spiritual traditions around the world “The Tree of Life” is seen to be like the Creator as it sustains creation with its abundant fruit, protection and generativity. The Tree of Life is also like human beings; as we develop roots, and strengthen our trunk and branch out to a wider vision of life, we grow in stature and strength and eventually blossom into full flower and fruit. We are earth-bound and yet reach up toward the heavens, trying to touch back to the source.
It is hard to imagine any other tree that would better embody the worldwide symbol of the Tree of Life than the baobab. Whether or not the baobab saved humanity from extinction and served as the Ark of humanity, I can think of no other tree as an icon for humanity and who knows, perhaps one day it might once again become our Ark. Survivalists have long lists of things to do for a possible catastrophe. I have only one – plant a baobab.
Traditional African Baobab Recipes
A Northern Nigerian speciality. This green soup is made with powdered baobab leaves and thickened lightly with dried Okro. Very tasty and serve well with tuwo shinkafa (ground rice).
225g / 8oz kuka leaves
225g / 8oz dried ground Okro
I fresh chilli
500g / lib dry or fresh fish
6 tablespoons palmoil
l ltr / 2 pint stock or water
salt to taste
Wash and clean the fish, if using fresh fish, sea son with salt and pepper. Grind tomatoes, on ions and chillies. Pour the stock into a large pot, add the grind ingredients and oil and cook for 15 minutes, add the Okro and kuka leaves, stir and cook for 10minutes. Season to taste and serve hot with tuwo shinkafa.
Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Tender baobab (Adansonia digitata) leaves, 100 g
Carrot, 100 g
Onion, 200 g
Cassava or potato starch, 1 tablespoon
Minced meat (beef, chicken, fish, mutton, or pork), 200g
Ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon
Garlic cloves, 5
Salad oil, 1 tablespoon
Salt, 1/2 teaspoon
- Wash and dry baobab leaves, carrot, onion and garlic. Cut baobab leaves and onion into 1 cm pieces, carrot into thin threads, and garlic in fine pieces; set the cut pieces aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the cut vegetables with the minced meat, the cassava starch, black pepper and salt; mix thoroughly.
- Add salad oil to a frying pan or skillet over medium heat.
- Add the vegetable mixture and saute or fry gently until cooked.
Baobab leaves could be replaced with other vegetable leaf.
Sites for Baobab Products and Info
Eco Products SA
Baobab Foods USA