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.

Carob – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

Minolta DSCHave you heard of St. John’s bread or locust bean? These are all names for the carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua. This herbal tree is a native of the Mediterranean region and is also grown in East Africa, India, Australia, and California. It can grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9-11 – places with dry, Mediterranean-type climates. Carob is disease and pest resistant, tolerates dry, poor, rocky soils, and is drought tolerant due to a very deep taproot (125 feet) that enables the tree to survive in arid climates. It is in the pea family (Fabaceae), and like other members of this family it fixes nitrogen, improving the fertility of the soil in which it is planted.

Carob is a multi-stemmed, evergreen tree that can reach 50 feet high and 50 feet wide, and its broad, dark green leaves make it a good shade tree. It is mostly a dioecious tree, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The flowers grow from the old, woody bark along the branches. Only the female trees produce fruit, starting when the tree reaches 8 years of age; however, fruit for commercial production begins when the tree is 20 years old. A mature tree can produce up to a ton of fruit in one season. The fruit is a sword-shaped pod that can grow to 12 inches long. When the pod turns from green to brown, it is ground into a powder and roasted. The result is used as a substitute for cocoa powder and flour. The seeds are a bit larger than watermelon seeds and are used to make locust bean gum, a food additive that thickens and stabilizes foods like ice cream and salad dressings.

History

The carob tree has a 4,000-year history of use. Some say that the tree is a survivor from a now-extinct group of the Fabaceae family (Loullis, 2018). Because carob seeds are fairly uniform in weight, ancient jewelers used the seeds for weighing gems and gold. One carob seed was the smallest weight for a diamond, giving the name “carat” to the measurement. Egyptians used carob to bind the wrappings of mummies and used it to make beer. They also treated wounds and eye conditions with it.

There are several biblical references to the use of carob. Its name, “St. John’s bread,” refers to St. John the Baptist being sustained in the desert by eating “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4). Locusts were mistakenly (some say) thought to be carob pods (Gardner, 2012). It was nutritious and easy to digest, and so porridge was made from it and fed to the elderly.  Because there was so much available and could be easily stored, it was a significant part of the diet of poor people during biblical times. 

carob, Nevit DilmenCarob pods discovered in the storehouses of Pompeii show that the Romans were harvesting the tree as early as 79AD. The Romans ate the carob seeds for their sweetness. The Greeks used carob pods as fodder for their pigs and food for their people.

In 1854, the U.S. Patent Office imported 8,000 carob trees from Spain and sent most of them to California. A profitable crop was not able to be produced from the trees so they were used for landscaping instead. In a prescient statement in 1914, Santa Barbara Agricultural Commissioner, C.W. Beers, commented that “The day may come when the deserts will be extensive forests of carob trees” (Kauffman, 2018).

The carob tree has been a source of nutrition during times of war and famine when supply chains of basic ingredients were interrupted. It was a lifesaver for many during the Spanish Civil War. It was the “chocolate of occupation” during WWII and was used as a substitute for flour and coffee. It has been considered to be the food of the poor, and was food for domestic animals. At one time, singers chewed the pods believing that it cleared the throat and voice.

Current Uses

Even today, carob has an amazing number of uses—from medicines, food for humans and animals, photographic film emulsions, adhesives, paints, inks, and polishes, and even cosmetics. Its wood is prized by wood craftsmen and also makes good charcoal. Italians use the seeds for rosary beads. The nutrients in carob have made it a health food staple, as it is high in fiber and natural sugars and is also a low-fat, no caffeine substitute for chocolate. Medicinally it’s used as both an anti-diarrheal and a mild laxative.

Recent research shows that carob powder is a rich source of the antidiabetic compound D-pinitol, a type of sugar. D-pinitol can decrease blood sugar levels and prevent obesity by suppressing the increase in human adipose tissue. In addition, the polyphenols in carob fiber have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation in some cancers (Loullis, 2018).

My favorite story about carob comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

One day, Honi the Wise Man was walking along the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man answered, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi replied, ‘And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?’ The man answered, ‘Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees (Vamosh, n.d.).

Carob is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. More information about the tree along with recipes and a beautiful screensaver can be found at https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Carob tree (Pedro Servera); 2) Male carob flowers (Erin Holden); 3) Female carob flowers (Rick J Pelleg); 4) Carob seed pods (Nevitt Dilman); 5) Carob candy (Relivate)

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

Carob. (2010). In Leung’s Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients: Used in food, drugs, and cosmetics by Ikhlas A. Khan and Ehab A. Abourashed. 3rd ed. Hoboken: Wiley. (Online through Ebsco)

Carob-the black gold of history. (n.d). Accessed 9/28/21. https://cretacarob.com/en/blog/news/to-charoypi-o-mayros-chrysos-tis-istorias/

Gardner, Jo Ann. (2012). The everlasting carob. The Herbarist. Issue 78, 2012. 

Kauffman, Jonathan. (January 31, 2018). How carob traumatized a generation. The New Yorker. Accessed 9/28/22. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/how-carob-traumatized-a-generation

Loullis, Andreas, Eftychia Pinakoulaki. (2018). Carob as cacao substitute: a review on composition, health benefits and food applications. European Food Research and Technology. Springer. Accessed 9/27/21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-017-3018-8

Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg. (n.d.) Food at the time of the Bible. Israel, Palphot Ltd. 

Vamosh, Mirium Feinberg, (n.d.) Carob trees, the Bible, and righteous gentiles. Accessed 9/28/22. https://miriamfeinbergvamosh.com/carob-trees-the-bible-and-righteous-gentiles/

What is carob? (n.d.) Carobana Confectionary. Accessed 9/20/21. https://carobana.com.au/carob.html


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’sTexas 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.

HSA Webinar: Texas Tough Herbs

By Jen Munson, Education Chair

texas tough

Texas is so large that growing zones can vary from one part of the state to the other. Northern Texas is zone 6B, while much of the remainder of the state varies from zone 7a to 9a. Join us on Wednesday, January 22nd, at 1pm EDT when HSA Member, Gayle Southerland, returns to the HSA Webinar series on an exploration of “Texas Tough Herbs.” She will discuss plants that thrive in the extremes of hot Texas summers and droughts while surviving freezing winters, too. Even if you are not in Texas, you will expand your garden knowledge and will be inspired to experiment with some lesser- known plant varieties to trial in your own garden. Sign up for this webinar on the HSA website.

Gayle Southerland_Texas Tough WebinarGayle became interested in herbs when she and her husband, Rick, bought their first house and had room to garden. Gayle has been a member of the Herb Society of America for over 30 years. She has served in many capacities from being the chair of the North Texas Unit to participating on The Herbarist committee, HSA’s yearly publication. Gayle has given presentations for The Herb Society of America national, district, and local meetings, as well as to local master gardener groups, Dallas MakerSpace, and various other garden clubs.


Jen Munson is The Herb Society of America’s Education Chair. She discovered herbs when she stumbled upon her local unit’s herb and plant sale and hasn’t looked back since. Just recently she celebrated being a member of the NorthEast Seacoast Unit for 15 years!