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The Baobab – A Living Legend

The Baobab – A Living Legend

Words: Liz Mckenzie.
Pictures: Rob Louw, Ernst Vanjaarsveld

A4In 1749 a young man from Provence, France, a land of clear sunshine, fragrant lavender, sage, rosemary, wild thyme and thickets of oaks, found himself transported to Senegal, West Africa, a land of mangrove swamps and steaming tropical jungles in the south, while in the north, searing heat lay on the dry savannah. His name was Michel Adanson, 22 years of age.

On behalf of the Compagnie des Indes Orientales (Dutch East India Company), he was to spend five years in Senegal to collect and describe the numerous plants and animals he found there. To a man familiar with gardens based on symmetry and the strict control of nature, untamed Africa must have come as quite a shock. Imagine his surprise on seeing a giant baobab for the first time. In a most formal and understated manner he wrote, ‘I perceived a tree of prodigious thickness, which drew my whole attention’. So began his years of collecting and meticulously documenting a vast variety of plants, among them the phenomenal baobab.

On his return to France he found that his name had been immortalised by the Swedish taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus who had included the name Adansonia digitata as the scientific name for the African baobab tree in his work Species Plantarum (The Species of Plants). Adansonia is in honour of his name and digitata relates to the five-fingered structure of the leaf. As a result, many have presumed that it was Michael Adanson who was the first to ‘discover’ and formally document an account of the African baobab tree.

However, close to 400 years before Adanson’s botanical notations of the baobab, this very same tree had already been described in detail by Ibn Battuta, a traveller from Tangiers, who in 1353 came upon these immense trees en route to Mali. He wrote, ‘Some of these trees have rotted inside and rainwater has collected there as if it were a well. People drink this water. In some of these trees are bees and honey, which people collect’.

In 1455 a Venetian nobleman and trader, Alvise Ca’ da Mosto was hired by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal to undertake an expedition to Senegal where he was astounded by a tree of remarkable size. He in turn wrote, ‘It was hollow in many places and its branches were very large so that they threw a deep shade around’.

Considering more recent history, men such as Livingston, Burton, Chapman and Baines have all gone to great lengths to measure, compare and document the attributes of this ‘living monument’. In 1855, Livingston apparently carved his initials on a baobab tree that grew on an island above the ‘Smoke that Thunders’. On his death in 1873 his heart remained in Africa, buried under a Mpundu tree, but the tree died in 1900 and was removed. Had his heart been buried under a baobab, today the tree still could be standing guard over his heart.


Thomas Baines, a self-taught artist, cartographer and naturalist, arrived from England to explore the Southern Africa wilderness where he produced many accurate, annotated watercolours and sketches. He notes the African baobab as being ‘This mighty monarch of the forest’. This is clearly illustrated in his painting of 1874, A bird’s-eye view of the Victoria Falls from the West, which unusually depicts the tree in all its green glory.

The Baobab has inspired a myriad popular myths and legends. It has been described as the Tree of Life, the Cream of Tartar Tree, the Monkey Bread Tree and, most commonly and aptly, the Upside-down Tree, which has inspired a collection of fanciful stories. My favourite conjures up vivid imagery even though it denigrates this most noble of trees by portraying it as an envious, bad-tempered, old fellow.

The story goes that the baobab was the very last tree to be created. ‘He’ looked at all the other trees that came before him and, although of considerable size himself, was envious of the elegant palm tree as it was taller than he was. He coveted the scarlet blossoms of the flame tree as his were only white and smelly and so he rumbled and stamped his roots, complaining to the Creator that the fruits of the fig tree were more succulent than his. Now the Creator had had a busy time of it and so wearied and annoyed was he by the baobab’s whining that he ripped the tree from the ground and thrust it back into the soil crown first to keep him quiet. As such it is his roots so that his roots forever appeared against the African sky.

A7The Tree of Life is an equally apt name, as among the baobab’s gnarled skin and muscular limbs lives quite a menagerie. Many birds make it their home, among them the Red-billed Buffalo Weavers that pile their tangle of sticks on the extremities of upper branches to create a communal nest, while insects scurry and lizards and skinks slink in the cracks and crevices of the bark. Colonies of African honey bees nest in the upper reaches and man has, for centuries, driven pegs into the trunk to climb up to reap the sweet reward.

The leopard orchid, Ansellia africana, anchors itself securely; high in the branches soaking up sunlight and the Praying Mantis sways and prays, searching for tasty morsels, keeping clear of baboons and monkeys feasting on delicious and nutritious ‘monkey bread’. Big-eyed bush babies scamper about at night feeding on moths attracted to the large, waxy, white, powerfully scented flowers while bats flit about drinking the nectar, all playing their part in the process of pollination. Should you be tempted to pick this exquisite flower you may well be eaten by a lion, despite the presence of ancestors and benevolent spirits known to live in it. Fortunately, however, should you drink a delicious concoction made from the fruit’s seed, you will never be eaten by a crocodile.

But for all the legend, it’s a miracle tree – the world’s largest succulent.

The baobab superfruit is packed with vitamin C, ascorbic, citric, malic and succinic acids, riboflavin (Vitamin B2) and niacin (Vitamin B3). Adanson remained convinced that it was his daily drink made from the fruit’s pulp that sustained and maintained his health throughout his time in Senegal. The citric and tartaric acids found in the pulp of the fruit provide a base for Cream of Tartar, so should you run out of it, pop out and search for your nearest baobab!


Age is a delicate subject for some but for this ancient tree age is worn like a badge of glory, and the more wrinkled, gnarled and convoluted the tree becomes with age, the more magnificent it appears. Fortunately for the baobab it has the unusual ability to repair its own skin after damage or trauma (without, like us) the help of a plastic surgeon or ‘miracle’ creams.

As Dr. Ernst van Jaarsveld, recently retired botanist, horticulturalist and curator of the Kirstenbosch conservatory, affectionately stroked the smooth skin of the youthful Adansonia digitata (youthful, as the tree is merely 115 years old) that holds centre stage at the conservatory, he answered my questions about the aging of the baobab.

Determining their age has proven to be a difficult task. The growth rings of a baobab’s fibrous trunk fade with age and, coupled with the fact that hollow chambers are formed in the central trunk area, the sole method of determining age is by radio carbon dating. There has been much speculation and exaggerated claims about their age over the years, but I understand that no tree is older than two to three thousand years of age (ancient beyond belief).

What is it that brings this ancient giant to its knees, other than considerable age? Another great, grey giant, the African elephant. A male weighing six tons can consume about 350kg of foliage and up to 200 litres of water a day, and for him the baobab is an extremely attractive ‘one-stop shop.’ And a resilient one at that, considering the repeated pachyderm attacks it has to endure.

Survive it does for centuries but in the end our silent giant does indeed give up his ghost and falls to the victor. The African Baobab is a symbol of Africa. It is our very own Living Legend.

Did you know?

  • The African Baobab can grow for over a thousand years.
  • Scientists and researchers can thus reconstruct rainfall patterns spanning centuries. Most rainfall pattern records in South Africa date back to about 50 years. Baobabs can therefore be used to understand the country’s climate system dating back even further.
  • Scientists at the University of Pretoria first realised the potential for this in 2008 when a baobab fell over in the Pafuri area, in the north of the Kruger National Park. The team was able to then start working on a project where core samples were removed for analysis. Plants take carbon dioxide and water in and out through their leaves and roots. This process is regulated by the availability of moisture around the plant at the time. This together with the baobab’s growth rings indicate how much rainfall there would have been since the time it formed. Researchers and scientists can then measure the carbon ratio in all of the tree’s growth rings and gather a rainfall record over the course of a tree’s lifespan.

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