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The Fattest Tree in the World

By Stephen Aitken

15/09/2003

Allee de Baobab, Madagascar

Imagine if you pulled a carrot from the garden, turned it upside down and stuck it back in the ground with the roots facing upwards. What you would see is very much like the Baobab tree. It is quite bizarre in appearance, with a barrel-like trunk that can reach close to 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter. It would take over 25 people linking arms to form a circle around some of the largest of these trees.

The Baobab can also grow very tall and some trees are 25 meters (82 feet) tall. The branches are short and twisted. Its roots are shallow but wide-spreading to take advantage of the infrequent but heavy downpours of the savannah regions of Africa where it grows abundantly in its native environment. The Baobab is also found naturally in Madagascar and Australia and has been planted in the Caribbean.

Africa’s Life Line

Like animals that store energy in fat to survive a long winter, these trees store water and nutrients in their trunks to survive the dry season. The trunk is hollow and a large tree can hold up to 9,000 liters (2,000 imperial gallons) of water. A hole with a stopper (bung) is commonly installed at the base of the tree to allow water to be removed. A line of such trees across the Kalahari once functioned as oases that helped travelers cross the desert.  Leaving the bung out of a tree so that the water was wasted was a serious offence, punishable by death!

During the rainy season the Baobab is covered in leaves, but the leaves drop off during dry periods. This helps to reduce moisture loss. If the tree is watered regularly, the Baobab will retain its leaves year-round. If there are any leaves left after the fruit bats finish with their chosen delicacy, many local people cook the leaves and eat them like spinach. However, care must be taken not to eat too much, since the high mucilage content gives them a strong laxative effect.

Elephants seem to think that the Baobab is some kind of chewing gum vending machine. Aggressive young bulls use their strength to up-root the tree, strip off the bark, and chew on the fibrous wood, spitting out the woody wad after their saliva has extracted the nutrients. Watch your step after they have been around!

Baobab and its People

The Baobab’s gourd-like fruit is loaded with Vit C

The indigenous people use the inner, fibrous bark of the Baobab tree to make string, rope, fabric, netting, brooms, and more recently filters and paper, especially for monetary bills. At the end of the dry season, large white flowers appear, hanging on long stalks. The flowers only open at night and are pollinated by nectar-feeding bats. The appearance of the hard, gourd-like fruit is a welcome site for those living nearby, as the pulp is high in Vitamin C and the source of a variety of foods. It can be ground into flour and baked like a bread (hence the name, Monkey-Bread Tree) or made into a nutritious drink (giving it the name, Lemonade Tree). The seeds are roasted and ground into a peanut butter-like substance and used as a source of cooking oil. Even the wood of this tree is sometimes eaten.

The hollow trunks of Baobab trees are widely considered in Africa to be resting places for ancestors. Burial of corpses in the trunks, especially of chiefs, along with weapons, pots, agricultural implements and sometimes beadwork, was once common. It is believed that whoever cuts down a Baobab will be haunted by its spirits. These hollowed out trunks have been used as shelters, and one tree was converted into a bus shelter that accommodated 40 people. A local African story says that if you meet a crocodile waiting for a bus, then soak some of the seeds in water and splash it all over your body. The crocodile will go away. Be careful if you ever take shelter in a Baobab too; there are confirmed reports of dead trees bursting into flames from spontaneous combustion.

Bush Babies make their homes in Baobabs

Insects, reptiles, birds and mammals find food and shelter under the Baobab. The Bush Baby, a small mammal with large round eyes and big ears, feeds on the flowers at night, and it may also help in pollination. Well adapted to arboreal life, Bush Babies leap great distances in the treetops, and often make their homes in Baobabs. Numerous birds roost in the trees, including red-winged starlings, swifts, buffalo-weavers, rollers, hornbills, parrots, kingfishers, lovebirds, barn owls, and Wahlberg’s Eagle. Venomous snakes, such as the Boomslang, also use the tree for shelter, so check that Baobab branch before you reach for it. If it moves, put your hands back in your pockets and wait for the next bus to come along!


* Stephen Aitken is the Managing Editor of ‘Biodiversity’, published by ‘Tropical Conservancy’.  Your emails will be forwarded to him by contacting the editor at: ScienceTech@islam-online.net

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