The Baobab Tree

‘Always it is eaten; Be it dry or rainy

Water is never scarce within.’

Yoruba praise for the Baobab tree


In the garden of the Great Spirit, the trees were being planted. Each received his place and stood proudly. Except one – the talking baobab tree. While all other trees were happy, the baobab wasn’t. And being a talking tree, he complained long and loud. He wanted to be taller than the palm, more beautiful than the flame tree in bloom and more fruitful than the fig. Tired of its constant grumblings, the Great Spirit flung it over the wall of his heavenly garden. The baobab flew through the air and landed on earth – upside down. And that is the way it has grown ever since – with its roots in the air. Of course its complaints have stopped!


In Africa there are numerous legends of the baobab. People believe that the tree came to earth fully grown. And if you listened hard enough at night, you could hear the thud of a baobab falling to earth!

This is perhaps because the saplings of the baobab look very different from the parent tree.

African folktale

Weird in its habits and appearance, the baobab is a life-giving tree in the dry lands of Africa. Many tribes hold it in reverence and rightly so. The Sudanese treat it as personal property and some trees are even given names just like humans. But almost always it is referred to as Um, meaning mother.

Like aging ladies, the baobab grows broader than it grows taller. It puts out its leaves just before the rainy season and flowers for only one night. The baobab is suited to the sub-Saharan climate and so it is found over large parts of Africa. In dry desert lands sometimes the baobab is the only large tree apart from the acacia. It also grows in Australia and there are many species in Madagascar.

The tree is almost indestructible for it can regrow its trunk! When a baobab reaches a great age, about five hundred years or more, its trunk becomes hollow (due to a fungus attack). And when a baobab dies, the hollow trunk collapses on itself leaving a spongy, powdery substance which soon blends into the sandy African soil.

Traditional Use

Being the only large tree in many areas, the baobab forms a micro-eco-system of its own, supporting life both animal and human. Old hollow baobabs are a home to snakes, bats, bush babies and bees. And humans too. Elephants eat its spongy outer bark. In fact some have been known to eat up an entire baobab tree.

Humans use it as tombs, stores, cattle stalls, markets, prisons, even bars and bus stops!

More importantly, in this arid region of the world, the bark is a source of water. It can store up to 4000 litres of water in its trunk!

According to some early European records rows of trees once stretched across the Kalahari all the way to West Africa. They were planted in long ago times to provide water to desert travelers. Sadly they are no longer there.

The fibrous trunk is stripped to make fibre for ropes, thatching, even weaving clothes. And at one time the bast fiber was exported to India and England to make banknotes. Whether elephant or human strips it unkindly of its bark, the baobab does not die.

In East Africa and Malawi the inner bark is an anti-dote for the arrow poison strophanthus. Animals killed by poisoned arrows have the wounds filled with groundings of the bark. So the tree must have been very useful in inter-tribe warfare!

In everyday life it is used as a mouthwash and the bark-ash is made into soap lye. A decoction of the bark is considered anti-malarial. Dambedza or baobab juice is served as a cure for hangover. The bark was exported to Europe and sold under the name cortex cael cedar as a substitute for quinine.

The dried leaves are used to make ‘lalo’ – a powdered meal eaten in times of famine. Lalo gruel is also taken for kidney and bladder diseases and diarrohea. It is also given for asthma, fevers and as a tonic. The sour young leaves are eaten in soups and sauces and cooling drinks.

When dried the fruit pulp becomes powdery and is easily separated from the seeds. This is used as a milk substitute. It is also taken orally for curing dysentery and fever.

The ground and roasted seeds are used as toothpowder and the seed husks added as seasoning in African cuisine, much like we use pepper and salt.

It is believed that anyone who plucks a baobab flower will be eaten by a lion.  An excellent conservation method for a short-lived flower.

 Science Says

The ethno-botanical knowledge about the baobab is being tested.

The UNCTAD recognized (2005)  the importance of the baobab in African life. The fruit pulp forms a white powder when dried and can easily be added to drinks, foods or pressed into tablets as supplements.It has a high nutritional quality. Since 2009 the US FDA has accepted the import of the fruit pulp into the USA as a safe ingredient in processed drinks and foods.

The fruit pulp also has high calcium content as also 25% of natural soluble fibre. The fruits and leaves have a Vitamin C content much higher than orange and kiwi. Initial tests have shown that the fruit pulp also protects against liver damage (hepato-protective).

The seeds and other parts of the plant yield a potash-based salt which is used to season food and salt replacement in diarrohea. The seed-oil has high omega 3-6-9 content.

Scientists have only recently identified the alkaloid adansonin in baobab. This is what makes it an effective antidote to poisons but the matter is still under research.

Present Use

The historian Ibn batuta was one of the first to record the baobab. Africans continue to use and revere it. Without the baobab, life in /Africa would be harder. Little wonder then that it has been selected as the symbol of the African Recovery Program.  Research is ongoing and governments are being urged to plant more baobabs in the deserts of Sudan and other arid regions. Many African associations use the symbol of the baobab to reconnect its people with its ancient culture. And numerous companies like The Baobab Fruit Company are collaborating in baobab research programs. To Africa the baobab is the Tree of Life.

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