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The mighty Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is, like the elephant which it seems to resemble, an iconic symbol of Africa.  Upon first sight, the trees seem otherworldly.  They look nothing like any other tree in the landscape, with their bulbous, massive trunks, smooth grey bark, sprawling, twisted, butressed roots and a crown that resembles a root ball, itself.  When viewing the savannah landscape, they will catch your eye first and draw all of your attention.  When I was training to be an Agro-Forestry Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin, West Africa, it was the first tree we learned about, and there was a lot to learn!

The Baobab Tree

Baobabs are the world’s largest succulent plants.  They live and thrive in harsh, hot, dry conditions where most trees would struggle to survive.  Their massive trunks store thousands of liters of water, to survive long periods of drought.  During the dry season, they have no leaves, and their branches resemble roots.  There are creation myths where the Gods were angry at the Baobab, so turned it upside down as punishment.  Just before the rains come, new leaves begin to sprout, and shortly thereafter, their giant and short-lived flowers appear.  Pollinators like bees and bats, must perform their task during the brief period of flowering to produce the all important fruit, which ripen with the onset of the following dry season.  Baobabs can be as much as 25 meters tall, but their trunks can attain over 100 meters in circumference!  They can live for thousands of years.

Baobab Leaves

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aobab leaves are palmate (shaped like the palm of your hand) and shiny dark green.  Young leaves are prized as a vegetable, making a delicious, sticky sauce to be eaten with porridge.  The fresh leaves are seriously packed with nutrition, containing high amounts of Vitamin C as well as other nutritional elements such as alpha and beta carotenes, rhamnose, uronic acids, tannins, potassium, calcium, catechins, tartrate, glutamic acid, mucilage and other sugars.  They are widely used in traditional medicine as well, as treatment for fever (malaria), as an anti-asthmatic, anti-histamine and to combat hypertension.  Older leaves are often harvested to nourish livestock.

Baobab Bark and Roots

Baobabs are rarely cut down, as their wood is porous, soft and wet.  However, the bark is extremely useful. Unlike most trees, stripping the bark does not harm the tree.  The bark regenerates readily, even when stripped all the way around the trunk.  The fiber is used to braid rope, weave clothing, baskets and nets.  The bark and roots have many medicinal uses as well, including as an antidote to poison.

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Baobab Fruit

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Hanging pendulously on long stalks, the ovoid fruit of the Baobab dry naturally on the tree and then either fall to the ground or are plucked with the use of long poles.  The shells are hard and brittle, and are covered with a fine, greeninsh fuzz. When cracked open, the seeds are coated with the dried pulp (mesocarp) and entwined in reddish fibers.  The main use of the shells and fibers is to burn them and make potash from the ashes for cooking and traditional soapmaking.  During harvest season, people grab chunks from inside the fruit and such the pulp off of the seeds, spitting the seeds on the ground to begin the cycle anew.

Baobab Seeds

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Baobab seeds are reddish-brown and rock hard.  They retain their viability for a very long time, and often will sprout after being digested by animals or being scorched in bush fires.  Seeds are often fermented, ground and made into a highly nutritious sauce.  They can also be roasted and brewed into a coffee-like beverage.  Baobab oil is pressed from the seed kernels and isn of tremendous cosmetic and skin healing value. Containing Vitamins A & E, with Omega 3, 6, & 9 Essential Fatty Acids, the rich, golden-hued oil delivers rich moisturizing and nutrition to skin, scalp and hair, and is especially valued for its rejuvenating effect on aging skin.  It is applied sparingly by itself, or blended in cosmetic formulations.  In Africa, Baobab oil has ceremonial value as well as being used to treat skin ailments.

Baobab Fruit Powder

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Baobab Fruit Powder is highly valued in Africa for its extraordinary nutrition.  In the West, it is now being recognized as a powerful and delicious superfruit with myriad culinary uses.  The fruit pulp is milled with mortar and pestle and sifted to obtain the cream-colored fine powder.  The powder can be mixed with water or other beverages (perfect for smoothies!), where its high level of pectin offers thickening properties, and its citrusy flavor is very refreshing.  It is also a great ingredient in baking, confections, sauces and soups.  The powder is about half fiber, which is nearly equally divided between insoluble fiber (roughage) and soluble fiber (mucilage). Both promote healthy digestion, but the soluble fiber acts as a prebiotic in the lower intestines, helping beneficial probiotic microflora to better colonize and deliver nutrients to the bloodstream.  Baobab earns its title as a superfruit by virtue of its high level of whole food Vitamin C, fiber, calcium and other minerals.  It is a potent antioxidant.  In Africa, its medicinal qualities are well known.  It is used to treat dysentary, malaria, malnutrition and other ailments.

Socio-cultural Significance

There is much more to the mighty Baobab than meets the eye (or stomach)!  Its moniker as the “Tree of Life” certainly is as a result of its tremendous utility, but it goes deeper than that.  Baobabs often represent ancient settlements, and the ancestors that inhabited them.  They are known to house the spirits of these ancestors, and serve as ceremonial altars for ritual and sacrifice.  One can often see offerings at the foot of Baobab trees, or tacked to their trunks.  Descendants of the ancestors maintain ownership of the trees, and continue to nourish and heal their families through the generations.

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