These are all different names of a most unusual and remarkable tree – the Baobab tree. It was given the botanical name Adansonia digitata in honour of Michel Adanson (1727-1806), the French Naturalist, who first saw it in Senegal in 1749.
It is called the Monkey Bread tree because monkeys eat the fruits like bread. It is called the Upside Down tree because when it is leafless, it looks like a tree planted upside down. It is called the Dead Rat tree because its furry fruits look like dead rats hanging down on their tails. And it is called the Bread Fruit tree because its fruits can be eaten like bread.
The oldest tree on earth
The Baobab is one of the oldest living trees on earth. Carbon dating has shown some trees to be over 3000 years old.
It is believed to be a remnant of the flora of Gondwanaland, the super-continent that once comprised of Africa, Antarctica, Australia and South America.
It is one of the hardiest plants and can not be easily killed. If chopped down, it quickly re-sprouts from the old roots. When burnt, the tree forms new bark, and keeps on growing. No wonder it is one of the longest living trees.
When a Baobab tree dies, it simply rots from the inside, and suddenly collapses, leaving only a heap of fibres. Local people believe that when a Baobab tree has no will to live, it dies.
Largest succulent in the world
The Baobab is actually a succulent – the largest succulent in the world. It belongs to the family Bombacaceae and has eight different species. It is a native of Madagascar (which has six species). It is also found in Africa and northwest Australia – both these regions have one species each.
In nature, the Baobab grows in dry, semi arid regions, where there is rainfall for only three months of the year. So its spreads its roots far and wide to collect as much rain water as possible. It then stores the water in its thick bark layer (the tree does not have the usual bark) which is 50-100 mm thick, smooth and shiny, pinkish grey or copper tinted in colour; and in its thick, lower trunk for use during the dry months. It grows up to 25-30 metres in height, and develops an enormous, thick, bulbous trunk 8-10 metres in diameter, in which it stores up to 1,20,000 litres of water.
The tree trunks can be dug out without damaging the tree and have been used for a variety of purposes – shelter, shops, houses, post office, etc. There is a huge tree in Zimbabwe. Forty persons can fit in its hollow.
During droughts, the tribals, and even elephants wandering through the arid regions, extract water from the pulpy fibre.
During the rainy season, twice a year, the tree puts out leaves – only for a few weeks at a time. The branches are, therefore, bare for nine months of the year, giving it the upside down look. It does not shed its leaves, when it gets watering throughout the year, but watering should be stopped for three months or so, otherwise, rot and decay may set in.
The leaves resemble an outstretched hand with up to five open fingers. Its large, white flowers are bell-shaped and fragrant, and open only at night. They are usually pollinated by fruit bats. For this reason, you can usually see colonies of fruit bats amongst its branches.
Travellers have carried the Baobab to different countries. There are a number of Baobab trees in different parts of India. I have seen Baobab trees in Hubli (Karnataka), Mumbai and Murud Janjira (Maharashtra). There are others in Mandu (Madhya Pradesh), Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.
The Baobab can not stand frost and dies. All the Baobabs in U.K. died in the unprecedented frost of 1740.
Seeds and germination
The Baobab propagates through seeds. The 20-50 cm long, brownish yellow, egg shaped fruit, looks like a small jack fruit. The outer shell is hard and woody and covered with fine hair. If you shake it, the beans inside make a rattling sound.
If you wish to grow your own Baobab, obtain some seeds from a reputed supplier. If you can obtain a fruit, break open the fruit. Wash the contents with water. You will find a number of kidney shaped seeds. Boil the seeds in water for about 15 minutes. Let them remain in water for 24 hours and then plant them. The pulp can be mixed with water to make a refreshing lemonade like drink.
The seeds will germinate any time between two weeks to six months. When they are 5 cm tall, plant them in separate pots. They make prize bonsai.
However, the baby plants do not resemble the adult tree in shape. The saplings grow fast for some time. Then the rate of growth slows down.
The tree’s unusual appearance and exceptionally long life have given rise to many interesting folk tales. According to the African Bushmen, God Thora took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden in Paradise. He plucked it out and tossed it over the wall of Paradise on to the Earth below. The tree landed upside down, but continued to grow!
According to another folk tale, the Baobab was amongst the first trees to appear on Earth. When the palm tree, the flame tree and the fig tree appeared, the Baobab started complaining to the Gods that it wanted to be taller, to have brilliant flame coloured flowers, and bear tasty fruit, too. The Gods grew angry at its incessant wailing and pulled up the tree by its roots, and replanted in upside down to teach it a lesson!
According to another African folklore, the Gods gave every animal a tree. The hyaena, arrived late and received the Baobab. He was disgusted with the tree and planted it upside down.
Very useful tree
All parts of the tree are useful. Therefore, Africans call it the Tree of Life. They even give names to the older trees. The name always begins with the prefix mother.
The bark is harvested for making rope and paper. The leaves are used as vegetable. They are also dried, powdered and added to stews and other meals. The roots are used to make a red dye. The shells are used for making cooking pots and pans. The seed oil is used in cosmetics as moisturising oil and is also used in cooking.
This fruit has the highest concentration of vitamin C of any plant. The pulp can be mixed with water and taken like lemonade.
The wide branched tree with far spreading roots creates its own unique eco- system. Rats, mouse and squirrel scurry amongst its roots and branches. Fruit bats roost on the branches. A variety of birds make it their home. Small and large mammals take shelter in and around the tree.
Walt Disney immortalized the Baobab in his film The Jungle King.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the largest Disney theme park in the world, sprawling across more than 500 acres of land, and located in the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida which was opened to the public on April 22, 1998 has a beautiful fibre glass replica of the Baobab tree.