Reaching 30m in height, with a circumference in excess of 28m, the baobab tree can live for several thousand years.
By Paul Donovan
If you found yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, you would be hard-pressed to fi nd in one place all the elements you require to survive. You have to go hunting for them. Th at is, of course, unless you fi nd yourself in the proximity of Adansonia, the Baobab tree. In my view, this tree is a living survival kit, as it can help you out in so many ways. Sometimes known as the ‘upside-down tree’, the Baobab is synonymous with Africa. It can reach 30m in height, with a circumference in excess of 28m, and live for several thousand years.
During the dry season, the baobab survives on the water it stores in its fl eshy branches and trunk. A small tree can store perhaps 10 or 20 litres, but one of the true giants can hold up to 100 000 litres. By tapping into various parts of the tree, from the trunk to the roots, it is possible to obtain a source of drinking water. Th e tree is essentially like a living standpipe. During the rainy season, the gigantic root system acts like a sponge, sucking up water and then delivering it to the very ends of its springy, sponge-like branches. Rain also collects in the cleft s of the large branches, and can provide another valuable source of water.
At certain times of the year, the baobab can provide the would-be survivor with food, as the leaves and fruit are both edible. During the rainy season, the lush green leaves provide a rich source of Vitamin A, C, essential amino acids, sugars, potassium and calcium. Th ey can be cooked like spinach, or, if dried and ground up, used as a thickening for soups. Th e young shoots at the ends of the branches can be eaten like asparagus. In addition, the roots of young trees are also edible.
Aside from the leaves and roots, in season the fruit also has many uses. It resembles a large egg covered in velvety green hairs, and can weigh up to a kilogram. It is sometimes known as the ‘bread-fruit’. The hard woody shell is extremely difficult to crack open, but once you do, the pod reveals kidney-shaped seeds covered in a soft, white, powdery flesh.
The flesh is one of the richest natural sources of Vitamin C and ascorbic acid. The chunks can be sucked like a sweet, or broken up and added to water, which releases the ascorbic acid and produces a refreshing drink similar to lemonade. If the chunks are soaked in milk for a couple of hours, they dissolve and turn the milk thick − like a yoghurt which tastes of almonds. Seeds roasted on hot coals can be finely ground and used as a substitute for coffee.
The flesh can also be ground up, mixed with water and beaten into a batter which is then either dried in the sun, or cooked like a pancake. Alternatively, it may be ground up and used like flour. This accounts for the Baobab’s other name: the ‘Monkey bread tree’.
The branches of the baobab are too wet to be used for fire lighting by friction, but the outer layer of bark is dry enough to ignite. On several occasions, I have made use of the seed pod for lighting a fire. The inside of the pod, once the flesh has been removed, exposes strands of fibrous filaments and tinder-dry dust. These can be scraped out and used as tinder; they take a spark easily.
The flesh of the seed pod remains dry for months after it has dropped from the tree, which means that it can be carried around or stored − giving you a reliable, fresh supply of food and dry tinder.
The leaves are said to have a number of medicinal uses, although their exact properties seem to vary wildly from country to country. In some regions they are considered to have antihistamine properties, and have been used to treat insect bites, sores, diarrhoea, bladder problems and asthma. The white gum derived from the bark is used for cleaning and treating wounds, and the seeds used as an antidote to strophanthus poisoning. Strophanthus is the poison used by indigenous people to tip their arrows.
If the bark or roots are soaked in water for a month or two, the fleshy part dissolves, leaving long strands of filamentous fibre which can be woven together to form rope.
When the leaves and seed pod are burnt, they give off a natural mosquito repellent.
Once the fleshy seeds have been removed, the seed pods can be sealed up and used as floats for fishing lines and nets. And, if cut in half and cleaned, the seed pods can be used as cups, bowls, or as pots to cook in.
The San or Bushman use the seed pods to carry embers wrapped in damp leaves.
As a living entity, the baobab tree can provide so much, but when it dies, it collapses into a soggy mass of fibrous pulp which is of no use to anyone.