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The Baobab – Africa's Giant Upsidedown Tree

Legendary tree of life, the giant baobab is a standout star of the African bush


Madagascar, Morondava, Baobab trees (Adansonia sp.) lining road
Raphael Van Butsele/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are eight species of Adansonia tree, but only one baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), native to the African mainland. Six of its relatives live in Madagascar and one in Australia. It is a tiny - and very distinctive family. The baobab itself is anything but tiny. This is the monster of the African bush, a vast fleshy giant which looms over the acacia scrubland waving its Medusa-like branches above a bulbous body.

Baobabs only grow below 1000m (3,000 ft) in tropical so are found in the South African lowveld - in Limpopo province, particularly around Musina, in the Kruger Park and in the northern section of Kwazulu-Natal. Some of the oldest are said to be well over 2000 years old.

The Sunland Baobab
Baobabs can reach heights of up to 30m (98 ft). The largest ever recorded, in Limpopo, South Africa, the Glencoe, had a diameter of 47m (154ft) before it split in two. The largest in existence now is thought to be the Sunland Baobab, in Modjadjiskloof, Limpopo, has a height of 22m (72 ft) and a diameter of 47m (154 ft). Since fires have hollowed out parts of the trunk, the owners have turned into a bar and wine cellar. Carbon dated at around 6,000 years old, this has a claim to be possibly the oldest living tree in the world. Elsewhere those with hollow trunks have been used as burial sites and the trees have become sacred. In many places, the enduring giant trees became a symbol of community, a place of gathering.

The Tree of Life
The baobab is also incredibly useful - so much so that Disney's Lion King named it the Tree of Life. It behaves like a giant succulent and up to 80% of the trunk is water. San nomads used rely on the trees as a valuable source of water when the rains failed and the rivers dried. A single tree can hold up to 4,500 litres (1,189 gallons). The bark and flesh are soft, fibrous and fire-resistant and can be used to weave rope and cloth. It is also used to make soap, rubber, glue and various medicines.

The fruit, which looks like a velvety gourd, is filled with big black seeds surrounded by tart cream, slightly powdery pulp. For years the Africans have eaten both the leaves and fruit which is also known as monkey bread. Now it is being hailed by Westerners as a new superfruit. It is said to have six times the Vitamin C levels of an orange as well as vitamin A, twice the amount of calcium of milk and be stuffed with antioxidants such as iron and potassium. It is said to be pro-biotic, good for digestion, brain and nerve function. The seeds can be roasted, and the flesh sliced or diced and cooked in a variety of ways. So far however the pulp is mainly being used in smoothies, as a thickener or sugar substitute. In the UK, Whitley Neill are adding it to gin!

There are many stories and traditions surrounding the baobab. The most prevalent is that the tree was lording it over lesser plants and so offended God, who uprooted it and planted it again upsidedown to stop it boasting. It remains in leaf for only a very short time each year and if you look at its branches bare of leaves, its easy to see how the legend grew.
The Order of the Baobab is a South African National Order, instituted in 2002, awarded to citizens for distinguished service in the fields of Business and the economy; Science, medicine and technological innovation; or Community service. There are three grades.

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