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Senegal's Baobab (Adansonia digitata)— Beloved Symbol

By Therese Hansen

Before my first trip to Africa, all I knew of the Baobab tree I learned in “Le Petit Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s delicately illustrated book that my aunt gave me when I was a teenager. I was captivated by the prince living on asteroid B612 with 3 volcanoes and 1 rose...and by his obsession with pulling out the pesky Baobab roots lest they grow and gobble up his asteroid. When I arrived on the continent, I was intent on finding a Baobab to see if it really did look like an uprooted tree stuck back in the ground upside down. It really did! I recall being overwhelmed not so much by the tower of the Baobab as by its reach, gnarls, musculature, and mostly its oldness--its palpable ancient aura.
Scroll forward a decade or so, living in Senegal where the Baobab is the national symbol, I find myself taking Wolof classes at ACI’s Baobab Center, located in Sicap Baobabs, where the enormous Baobab tree looms large at the end of the boulevard. The Baobab “Tree of Life” figures prominently on postcards, television, street signs and batik cloth. I wanted to learn more.
Botanists believe Baobabs may be the oldest life form on the African continent, but Baobab taxonomy is relatively paltry.  My research reveals that most Baobabs live in Africa, Madagascar or Australia. There are at least 8 species with 6 endemic to Madagascar. Adansonia digitata lives in Senegal, and it appears to have been first recorded in 1759. “Adansonia” supposedly for the French surgeon Michel Adanson (1727-1806); “digitata” referring to the hand-like shape of its glossy leaves.
baobab tree picture
The Adansonia digitata can grow over 80 feet tall and 30 feet wide, with rounded crowns and one or several trunks. Carbon dating estimates that trees with a trunk diameter of 15 feet are about 1000 years old, and similar experiments elsewhere have dated trees at over 3000 years. (But note: girth measurement may not be reliable as the trunks are hollow and may enlarge or shrink, depending on the volume of stored water.)
The glossy Baobab leaf is typically 5” long with simple structure becoming more complex over time. Young leaves may have teeth that disappear as the tree ages.
Baobabs are late bloomers—late teens or early 20’s when they first flower. The 5 to 7-inch white flowers with purple stamen emerges suspended on stalks. The glory is short-lived, about a day, as the flower dies as soon as it is attacked for its sweet nectar by fruit bats and insects.
Fruit sets just before the rainy season. It grows approx. 6 to 10-inches long by 4-inches wide. Hanging off the tree, the fruit resembles an upside down rat covered with little yellow-brown hairs. Inside are a couple of dozen large, kidney-shaped seeds protected by a cream-colored chalky or sponge-like pulp. The seed are eventually eaten and dispersed by animals.
The Baobab’s almost eerie tangle of branches gives shelter to many of the players in the ecosytem-- rodents, snakes, tree frogs, scorpions and insects who may live their entire life in a single tree. Trunk holes give nesting space a smattering of Senegal’s almost 400 species of birds. And birds of prey construct their vast nests on the muscular outer branches. Apparently, Red-billed Buffalo Weavers are particularly drawn to the Baobab habitat.
The legendary Baobab reigns supreme in Senegal. Ubiquitous on Africa’s savannah, possessing powerful presences that guide Africans in life, used as shelter and even as a human tomb, the tree is Senegal’s pride and an object of intrigue for Africa’s visitors, who travel miles to experience their mystery. The Baobab is a highly-valued and widely and wisely used resource. It offers shade from Africa’s blazing sun and its hollow jug trunk is a reservoir able to hold about a thousand gallons of water critical to African existence. Its bark is used for rope and fishing nets. Its fruit, commonly known as “monkey bread” with a reported vitamin C content 6 times that of an orange, is eaten or squeezed into “buy” (pron. “bwee”) —the refreshment that doubles as an antidote to diarrhea, fever and malaria. Its leaves, rich in calcium, are eaten raw or used to season millet cous cous. Its branches feed animals and fuel the hearth. And, its hard seeds are ground into oil for soap or, as I recently tasted, whipped into a peanut butter-like Easter treat called ngalaax.
Baobabs do not die willingly. Even when hacked down, its roots continue to grow. But, when a Baobab does die, it has been described as collapsing into “a fibrous mass as though struck by lightning, until a high wind blows away the remnants of a solitary giant that had been a landmark for centuries.”
Article by Therese Hansen, a lawyer from Seattle, Washington volunteering at ACI’s health department (raleigh1228[at]
Drawing by Rosi Moffet, Lewis &Clark College Study Abroad Program in Senegal.

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