September 23, 2019

The African Tree of Life

“Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no individual can embrace it."

Some trees are strongly associated with the places in which they grow, so much that they become symbols of the places themselves; think of the Coast Redwoods of California, the Pehuen or Monkey Puzzle of the Andean foothills of Chile, or the various species of Australian Eucalyptus. One tree that is distinctly recognizable in the drier parts of sub-Saharan Africa is the Baobab, Adansonia digitata. Baobabs are naturally distributed from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, and to the northernmost part of South Africa. Like other organisms that are so well known that they have been taken for granted, the massive Baobabs still have secrets to reveal. Some of the trees might be a newly described species, Adansonia kilima, according to the latest genetic analysis. Baobabs provide significant environmental benefits to wildlife: safety and a nesting place for many creatures, nectar for the species’ fruit bat and insect pollinators, and a food and water source for elephants. Up to 75-80% of a Baobabs’ bulk is composed of water.
Elephants will often strip away bark and rip and chew through the trunks to satisfy their thirst. Even after many generations of damage, if not toppled, the trees continue to grow.

Elephant damage to a large Baobab
Baobabs also provide significant benefits for humans, especially in the driest areas where they grow. Honeybees utilize the hollow limbs; the trees have been used as various forms of shelter.  The fibrous bark makes excellent rope and nets. Leaves are harvested as fodder for cattle, goats, and camels. The pulpy fruit, commonly sold in markets across the continent, is peeled, sliced, and dried; it’s an excellent source of vitamin C. The seeds can be ground into a type of rich flour that is high in fat and protein. Young leaves can be cooked as a vegetable. All of the tree’s edible parts also contain valuable mineral nutrients. Historically, Baobabs were planted along the paths of the slave trade and can be found on the Arabian Peninsula and in the New World tropics.

 The Baobab prominently figures in many African myths and stories, especially in the explanation of the tree’s “upside-down” appearance. During the dry season, the species endures long periods of leaflessness, and the trees look as though they are growing upside down in the earth.















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