Baobab Trees - Africa's Oldest Inhabitants?
Standing tall on the sunburnt African plains, baobab trees tower over the landscape like great living monuments. The colossal form of these trees is matched by their usefulness, for they provide shade, shelter, water and food for a wide variety of creatures. A leafless Baobab at Matesti shows off its taut, muscle-like branches.
Baobabs may be the oldest life forms on the African continent, and many of the specimens still standing today have certainly been around since the birth of Christ; others for far longer. Carbon-dating experiments in the Zambezi Valley have calculated that trees with a trunk diameter of five metres were over 1000 years of age, and similar experiments elsewhere have dated trees at over 3000 years. Girth measurements themselves are not reliable estimates of a particular tree's age, as the conditions under which it has grown - and the climatic fluctuations of the centuries - strongly affect this.
Baobab trees flower for the first time at about 20 years. In mid-summer, dozens of luminous white blossoms - the size of saucers - open at sunset and their strong musky odour attracts fruit bats and hosts of insects. Large bats seek out the sweet nectar and collect and distribute pollen as they move from flower to flower. The life of the flower is short lived and it drops to the ground within hours of being serviced. The resultant seeds are housed in a hairy pod which resembles a miniature rugby ball (inside of which is a white pulp from which 'cream of tartar' is derived). Once they fall to the ground, the pods are fed upon by baboons, monkeys, antelope and elephants, which serve to disperse the hard seeds within.
An Ecosystem Within a Tree
The sculptured branches, with their hollows, dents and bloated stems, provide shelter and home for a great variety of animals. Galagos (bushbaby), squirrels, rodents, lizards, snakes and tree frogs, as well as spiders, scorpions and insects may live out their entire life in a single tree. Holes in the trunk provide ideal nesting sites for birds such as rollers, hornbills, parrots, kestrels and spinetails. Larger cavities are frequently occupied by families of Barn Owls or Ground Hornbills. Eagles, vultures and storks frequently build their large stick nests on the outer branches, and the colonial nests of Red-billed Buffalo-weavers are more often found in Baobabs than any other tree.
Uses to Mankind
For centuries, the baobab tree has played an important role in the economy and culture of Africa. Practically every part of the tree is useful and in Sudan they are so highly valued that individual trees may be privately owned! The wood itself is too fibrous for structural use but the bark is shredded into strands of fibre for use as rope, baskets, nets, snares and cloth. Tonics and cosmetics are derived from the roots, and spinach and soup from the large palmate leaves. The seeds may be ground into a coffee-substitute or eaten fresh and the white pulp is used as 'cream of tartar' for baking. The hollow trunks of living trees have served as homes, storage barns, places of refuge or worship, and even as prisons or tombs. One tree at Katimo Mulilo in Namibia has suffered the rather ignominious fate of having been converted into a flush toilet, while one near Gravelotte in South Africa's Northern Province was once used as a bar where up to a dozen thirsty gold diggers would quench their thirst.
Because of its many uses and its ability to survive in semi-arid conditions, the Baobab survives in the face of man's expansion across the continent. Ironically, the tree is probably most at risk in wildlife reserves where confined populations of African Elephant may outstrip their resources and demolish and consume baobab trees in their struggle for survival.
Posted: Plants by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006