Baobab Tree – The African “Tree of Life”

by Maryann Readal

Baobab tree with leavesThe African baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, is a unique tree. Seeing this huge tree in the African landscape and hearing the stories about it never fails to capture my imagination.

The baobab tree is native to sub-saharan Africa, and can be found in low-lying areas of Australia, India, and Madagascar as well. The tree has been introduced into other countries over the years. Carbon dating has found that some of these trees are over 2,000 years old. However, the oldest of the African trees are slowly dying. Climate change, greenhouse gasses, and exploitation are believed to be factors affecting the longevity of these iconic trees.

Large baobab tree without leavesThe tree can reach a height 65 feet. Its trunk is a series of branches that have grown together creating a trunk of truly monumental size—36 to 46 feet or more in diameter. The inside of the trunk is hollow. This tree only has leaves during the rainy season, which lasts two to four months of the year. The other months of the year, the tree appears to be growing upside-down with its trunk and roots rising from the earth below. An old legend is that the gods became displeased with the baobab because the tree felt it was better than other trees, and so the gods yanked it out of the ground and turned it upside down to teach it humility. Each African country has its own interesting stories and legends about the baobab tree.

The tree’s flowers are white, pendulous, and very fragrant. However, as the blossom ages, it smells like carrion. It blooms only at night and the blossom is pollinated by fruit bats. It takes 8-23 years for a tree to begin to bloom. When the flower fades, the seed pod dangles from the tree’s branches and resembles a large, velvet covered gourd. The pod can be dried and used as a food or drink container. Because the seed pulp has so many medicinal and nutritional uses, research is being done on ways to shorten the time it takes for the tree to bloom, increasing the tree’s potential economic value in Africa.  

The baobab can store a large amount of water in its huge, fibrous trunk, which is why elephants and other animals chew on its trunk during dry seasons. One tree can hold 1,189 gallons of water. Indigenous peoples have used the tree for water during dry spells and hiding places during times of war. Some tree trunks were so large that they were used as jails, a post office, and even as a bush bar in South Africa. The tree’s herbal properties are still important to Africans. Various parts are used for food, medicine, to make beer, and as a source of fiber. The tree also supports many native animals, insects, and bats. Nearly 300 uses of the baobab tree have been documented (Islam-Faridi, 2020). This African herbal tree is appropriately named the “Tree of Life” because of its many uses.  

The seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit pulp, and bark of the baobab tree are all edible. Baobab leaves are used in the preparation of soup, sauces, and are used as a relish. Seeds are a thickening agent in soups, and can also be fermented and used as a flavoring, or roasted and eaten as a snack. The seed pulp acts as a leavening agent in bread making. Cream of tartar was once made from the seed pulp. The seed pulp is also candied and sold in local markets, and is fermented to make a local beer.

The seed pulp is nutritional and has many health benefits, so it has become a popular health food supplement. The pulp is said to have ten times more Vitamin C than oranges and 50% more calcium than spinach. The U.S. and Europe have approved the pulp as food in recent years and it is now being marketed as a “superfood,” containing more antioxidants than other fruits. Packaged, powdered baobab pulp and leaves can be found online and in health food stores.

Three small kids standing in a hole in a baobab tree trunkThe medicinal applications of the tree are too many to cover here. The anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties of the leaves and the seed pulp have been used to treat infections and a host of other illnesses. It has been used as a prophylactic against malaria. Research studies have shown that the A. digitata is the most potent native plant for treating viruses and studies show that the seed pulp and the leaves have the highest antioxidant properties (Jackson, 2016).

In addition to the tree’s medicinal and nutritional benefits, “studies suggest that baobab preparations can promote skin cell regeneration and tone, tighten, and moisturize the skin” (Jackson, 2016). The essential oil is good for dry skin, sunburn, and the prevention of wrinkles. The baobab has now become an important tree for the cosmetic industry.

A large group of people standing in a circle around the trunk of a large baobab treeSeeing one of these giant trees in Africa and being inside one of them is certainly an unforgettable experience. Hearing the stories about the tree is even better because they tell of a deep respect for this important tree by the African people.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Baobab with leaves (Maryann Readal); 2) Baobab without leaves (Stacey Readal); 3) Fruits (Creative Commons); 4) Flower (Bernard Dupont, via Wikimedia); 5) Baobab seed snacks (Maryann Readal); 6) Powdered baobab leaves (Creative Commons); 7) Hadza baobab tree house in Tanzania (Creative Commons); 8) Baobab tree in Limpopo, South Africa (South African Tourism, via Wikimedia)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

Africa Geographic. 2015. 9 fascinating baobab tree facts. Accessed 8/9/22. Available from https://africageographic.com/stories/9-fascinating-baobab-tree-facts/

Gardenerdy. 34 facts about the baobab tree. Accessed 8/12/22. Available from https://gardenerdy.com/facts-about-baobab-trees/

Jackson, Simon. 2016. Baobab: the tree of life – An ethnopharmacolocal review. HerbalGram, Nov 2015-Jan 2016, Issue 108. Accessed 8/10/22.  Available from http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/108/table-of-contents/hg108-feat-baobab/

Kabore, Donatien, et al. 2011. A review of baobab (Adansonia digitata) products: effect of processing techniques, medicinal properties and uses. African Journal of Food Science: Vol. 5(16) pp. 833-844. Accessed 8/10/22.  Available from https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=fr&user=ig1J-FQAAAAJ&citation_for_view=ig1J-FQAAAAJ:u-x6o8ySG0sC    

Nurul, Islam-Faridi, et al. 2020. New chromosome number and cyto-molecular characterization of the African Baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) – “The Tree of Life”. Scientific Reports, 8/6/20. Accessed 8/9/22. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413363/

Page, Michael Le. 2021. Efforts to domesticate African baobab trees are bearing fruit. New Scientist, 9/4/21. Accessed 8/9/22. Academic Search Complete database.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas  Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Dr. Faith Mitchell on Hoodoo Medicine

By Paris Wolfe

Gullah_s_carolina_1790

Gullah slaves, circa 1790

When author and medical anthropologist, Faith Mitchell, Ph.D., was an undergraduate studying anthropology at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, she spent three summers in the Sea Islands. Numbering more than 100, the Sea Islands are a chain of tidal and barrier islands on the Southeastern Atlantic. While they’re home to luxury estates today, they were still very rural in the 1970s.

At that time, Sea Island residents were mostly African-American descendants of plantation slaves. Known as the Gullah people, they had been geographically isolated from the mainland for generations. Because of that, combined with the effects of racial discrimination, Mitchell says, “They had a lot of African traditions that were maintained through oral tradition, more so than in any other parts of the south.”Copy of Sea Islands 512

Among these traditions was folk medicine that had originated in Africa and merged with Native American and European practices. Interestingly, it bears some resemblance to Jamaican folk medicine, but that’s another story.

As a student, Mitchell was fascinated by the use of plants and natural materials in healing, so she started collecting information about what locals called “roots” medicine. It’s important, she says, to distinguish between what people term good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers, she explains. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo.

CoverTo capture this cultural treasure, Mitchell wrote Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, which was first published in 1978 and then republished in 1999.

The book starts with a brief history of the area and then details medicinal roots, herbs, and plants used in Gullah culture. Artist Naomi Steinfeld produced more than 50 drawings of various medicinal plants to illustrate the book.

Practices described include using elderberry tea to treat colds, mud to cast bone breaks, and tree leaves to draw out headaches. Healing properties were also attributed to mint, Spanish moss, gum tree leaves, and much more. The healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health.

Unfortunately, says Mitchell, much of this tradition has been threatened over the years by the commercial development of the Sea Islands, the exodus of younger generations in search of work, and reduced isolation from the mainland and mainstream. Fortunately, there is renewed interest among Gullah descendants in preserving their unique history and culture.

Cotton Flower

Cotton flower used medicinally on the Sea Islands

Today, Mitchell is the recently-retired CEO of Grantmakers In Health and is a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, working with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy and the Health Policy Center. She is also developing the Urban Institute’s American Transformation project, which will look at the implications—and possibilities—of this country’s racial and ethnic evolution.

 

Faith MitchellDr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. She has written or edited numerous policy-related publications as well as Hoodoo Medicine. For more information and to purchase her book, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.

 

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Paris Wolfe is an award winning writer of business, food, and travel articles.