Baobab - Africa tree of life

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A symbol of life on the African plains, the giant baobab belongs to the genus Adansonia, a group of trees consisting of nine different species. Only two species, Adansonia digitata and Adansonia kilima, are native to the African mainland, while six of their relatives are found in Madagascar and one in Australia. Baobabs are found throughout the African continent, although their range is limited by their preference for low-lying areas and drier, less tropical climates. They have been introduced overseas as well and can now be found in countries such as IndiaChina and Oman. 

The tree goes by many names, including boab, boaboa, tabaldi, bottle tree, upside-down tree, monkey bread tree, and the dead-rat tree (from the appearance of the fruit). Baobabs are often referred to as upside-down trees, thanks to the fact that, when bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the baobab look like roots sticking up into the air, as if it had been planted upside-down. Baobabs are deciduous and their bat-pollinated flowers bloom at night.

Although the baobab's genus is small, the tree itself is quite the opposite. This is the monster of the African bush, a vast fleshy giant that looms over the acacia scrubland waving its Medusa-like branches above a bulbous body. It may not be as tall as the coast redwood, but its vast bulk makes it a strong contender for the world's largest tree. The baobab can grow to enormous sizes. Adansonia digitata can reach 82 feet/25 meters in height, and 46 feet/14 meters in diameter. The largest circumference on record is 47 metres. Carbon dating indicates that they may live to be 3 000 years old.

The baobab’s biggest enemies are drought, water logging, lightning, elephants and black fungus. Animals like baboons and warthogs eat the seed pods; weavers build their nests in the huge branches; and barn owls, mottled spinetails and ground-hornbills roost in the many hollows. The creased trunks and hollowed interiors also provide homes to countless reptiles, insects and bats.

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The Sunland Baobab 

One African baobab specimen in Limpopo Province, South Africa, is often considered the largest example alive. Up to recent times, the tree had a circumference of 47 meters - its diameter is estimated at about 15.9 meters. Recently, the tree split up into two parts and it is possible that the widest Adansonia digitata baobab in existence now is the Sunland Baobab, located in Modjadjiskloof, Limpopo Province, South Africa. This breathtaking specimen boasts a height of 62 feet/19 meters and a diameter of 34.9 feet/10.64 meters. At its widest point, the Sunland Baobab's trunk has a circumference of 109.5 feet/33.4 meters.

The tree has had plenty of time to reach its record-breaking width, with carbon-dating giving it an approximate age of around 1 700 years. After reaching 1 000 years, baobabs start to become hollow inside. The owners of the Sunland Baobab have made the most of this natural feature by creating a bar and wine cellar in its interior. 

The tree of life 

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The baobab is highly regarded by African people, because all of its parts can be utilised in some capacity. This explains why it is widely known as the tree of life. The baobab behaves like a giant succulent and up to 80% of the trunk is water. San bushmen used to rely on the trees as a valuable source of water when the rains failed and the rivers dried. A single tree can hold up to 4 500 liters (1 189 gallons) of water. Elephants, eland and other animals chew the bark during the dry seasons.

The hollow centre of an old tree can also provide valuable shelter and has been used for a wide range of purposes, such as grain storage, burial sites, jails, post offices and bush pubs, amongst other creative uses. In addition to being an important source of timber, some of the most important products come from the bark of the tree. The bark and flesh are soft, fibrous and fire-resistant and can be used to make fishnets, cords, sacks and clothing. The bark can also be ground into a powder for flavouring food. The leaves of the baobab were traditionally used for leaven, but are also used as a vegetable.

In addition, baobab products are used to make soap, rubber, and glue; while the bark and leaves are used in traditional medicine. The baobab is a life-giver for African wildlife, too, often creating its very own ecosystem. It provides food and shelter for a myriad of species, from the tiniest insect to the mighty African elephant. 

A modern superfruit 

The fruits and seeds of a baoba are edible for humans and animals. Baobab fruit resembles a velvet-covered, oblong gourd and is filled with big black seeds surrounded by tart, slightly powdery pulp. Native Africans often refer to the baobab as the monkey-bread-tree and have known about the health benefits of eating its fruit and leaves for centuries.The pulp of the fruit, when dried and mixed with water, makes a beverage that tastes similar to lemonade. The seeds, which taste like cream of tartar and are a valuable surce of vitamin C, were traditionally pounded into meal when other food was scarce. Young leaves can be cooked and eaten as an alternative to spinach, while the fruit pulp is often soaked, then blended into a drink. 

Recently, the Western world has hailed the baobab fruit as the ultimate superfruit, thanks to its high levels of calcium, iron, potassium and Vitamin C. Some reports state that the fruit's pulp has almost ten times the amount of Vitamin C as the equivalent serving of fresh oranges. It has 50% more calcium than spinach and is recommended for skin elasticity, weight loss and improved cardiovascular health. 
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