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.