The magnificent baobab tree is an icon of the African continent, and with bark and fruit that offer over 300 life-sustaining uses, it is the root of many African remedies, traditions, and folklore. Hence its quite literal nickname: “The Tree of Life.”
The prehistoric species predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago. European explorers claimed the trees could live for up to 5,000 years, but carbon dating indicates they may live up to 3,000 years old. Known to reach up to 100 feet tall with a circumference to match, these trees are enormous, providing shelter, food, and water for hundreds of humans and animals. That’s why African savannah communities have long centered their communities around these monumental trees.
In a climate that is extremely dry and arid, baobabs are a symbol of life in a landscape where little else can thrive. Its large whitish flowers open at night and fall within 24 hours, creating an enchanting display at both ends of the cycle. As a succulent, the trees absorb and store water from the rainy season in its massive trunk, enabling it to produce a nutrient-dense fruit in the dry season, which can grow up to a foot long. The fruit contains tartaric acid and vitamin C and its pulp can be eaten, soaked in water to make a refreshing drink, preserved into a jam, or roasted and ground to make a coffee-like drink. Baobab bark can be pounded to make everything from rope, mats, and baskets to paper and cloth. The leaves can be boiled and eaten, and glue can be made from the pollen.
The African baobab is remarkable not only because of its size, lifespan, fruit and bark, but also in the way it continually grows multiple fused stems. Bark regenerates in the space between these stems, called false cavities, which is unique to the baobab.
Baobab trees are crucial ecosystem elements in the dry African savannas. They help keep soil conditions humid, aid in nutrient recycling, and slow soil erosion. They are an important source of food, water, and shelter for hundreds of animals including birds, lizards, monkeys and even elephants – which can eat their bark for moisture when there is no water nearby. The flowers are pollinated by bats, which feed on their nectar.
Native human populations have learned, through centuries, to live harmoniously with these majestic trees, thriving off of their many uses without depleting them. However, due to climate change, nine of 13 of Africa’s oldest and largest baobab trees have died in the past decade. Scientists speculate that warming temperatures have either killed the trees directly or have made them weaker and more susceptible to drought, diseases, fire, or wind. Only with an integration of ecological, social, and economic studies involving local communities can we restore Africa’s climate and ecosystem over the long term and ensure that the baobab tree will continue to live, and thrive, for thousands of years to come.