Trees of Life: Baobabs

Written by Thomson Safaris

During the long dry season, they seem dead, their twisted bark peeling and grayish, limbs leafless and scraggly, looking almost like a tree plucked out of the ground, flipped over, and thrust back down, deep into the earth.

But baobab trees—also commonly known as “upside-down trees”—use death as a sort of disguise. Beneath the desiccated exterior, these trees pulse with life.

The camels of the plant world, baobabs can store up to 100,000 liters (around 26,000 gallons) of water in their wide, barrel-like trunks (one famous baobab in Namibia has a trunk that stretches to 87 feet in diameter; it may be the widest tree in the world!). It’s enough, once they shed their leaves, to get them through the lengthy dry seasons in Tanzania.

In fact, it’s enough to get them through many, MANY dry seasons.

Baobabs are often incredibly ancient, even by plant standards. The trees can live for hundreds, even thousands of years, cheating death for generation after generation.

Ironically, it’s when the trees come most to life that they may remind some people most strongly of death; their flowers release a carrion smell, thought to attract the fruit bats that usually pollinate them.

Elephant and Baobab

Yes, that’s a full-grown elephant in front of that baobab…
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Ann Dewey

But the ruse, once again, pays off, both for the trees and the surrounding communities. The fruit—often called “monkey-bread fruit,” since the pulp inside dries to a texture resembling that of crumbling bread—is not only a traditional food source in much of Africa, it’s an incredibly healthy one. It contains 50% more calcium than spinach, is loaded with antioxidants, and has as much Vitamin C as three servings of oranges. It also contains fiber, B vitamins, potassium, and iron; forget your multivitamin, a regular dose of baobab is the best way to ensure a longer life!

Eaten fresh, used as a thickener in jams or sauces, or mixed into drinks or porridge, the fruit has a pleasantly tart flavor, which people describe as tasting like a cross between a grapefruit, a pear, and vanilla. It can also be added to sugar cane to make a variety of beer.

Beyond feeding people, the tree provides several other necessities of life. Various parts of the tree have been turned into fibers and dyes, and dried limbs are used as fuel.

Many trees also provide shelter; a famous South African tree, the Sunland baobab, has a large hollow space in the interior (many trees grow this way; the previously mentioned Namibian tree can hold about 35 people inside its massive trunk). The current owners of the land on which the Sunland tree sits turned it into a pub and wine cellar in 1993 (which certainly has brought visitors to life), but carbon dating on the interior shows traces of fires being lit inside as far back as the year 1650.

As far as baobabs are concerned, appearances—and smells—can be deceiving. Not only can they cling to life tenaciously, they’ve helped maintain it throughout the plains of Africa for centuries upon centuries!