The African baobab or Adansonia digitata is the only of the now nine species (up until recently there were eight) of baobab trees native to the African mainland.
These monster trees with their swollen, gnarled bodies and incongruous branches that look more like roots than arms are also known as ‘elephant trees’, ‘big trees’ or ‘upside down trees’.
Their lifespan is great and there are specimens in South Africa as old as 3000 years. Even the average baobab on the side of the road is 350 years old. The tree against which you lean to have your photograph taken was there during your grandfather’s time, to put it in perspective.
Animals love them – elephants strip the bark for food and moisture, baboons eat the fruit (also known as ‘monkey bread’ or ‘cream of tartar fruit’), whilst birds and bees, fruit bats and bush babies love to nest in them.
And man uses the dried fruit powder (the fruits are roughly the size of coconuts) for its high levels of antioxidants, vitamin C, calcium, vitamin A, dietary fibre, minerals and amino acid content – they’re tantamount to a superfood.
Up to 80% of the trunk of a baobab is water and a single tree can hold up to 4 500 litres. In the Kalahari baobabs grow in something of a line across the desert. These function as living reservoirs for travellers and San nomads who have relied on them as a water source.
Baobabs tend to grow in hot, semi-arid areas and are found in belts across Africa. In South Africa you’ll find them north of the Soutpansberg mountain range where they are almost synonymous with the Limpopo province, and the stuff of legends.
Stories describe how when a boy is washed in water used to soak baobab bark, he will grow into a strong and tall man and some believe that women living in kraals around which there are many baobabs, will have more children. This could have something to do with the fact that they eat soup made from the leaves of the tree.
Baobabs grow easily from seed, although you won’t find them very often in nurseries, but the black, kidney-shaped seeds from dry fruits can be soaked in warm water, allowed to cool and then sown in spring or summer in a seedling mix that contains at least a third sand.
Photograph: Babobab in the Mapungubwe National Park
WHERE TO FIND BAOBABS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Musina – the Baobab town
Sunland Baobab – the bar in a hollowed out tree
Carbon dating estimates the Sunland baobab to be around 6 000 years old – although ascertaining a baobab’s age is difficult as the wood does not produce annual growth rings. It is also regarded as the stoutest tree in South Africa (now that Glencoe, see below, has split in two).
Its circumference at 33.4 metres makes it enormous, particularly when you consider that it reaches a dizzying height of around 20 metres (exact measurements you will have to see for yourself as sources vary). Put it this way: the Sunland baobab is large enough inside (trunks of baobabs are naturally hollow) for a small pub to have taken up residence. You will find the attraction on Leeudraai, a dirt road off the Modadji Road, which you can take roughly 6km outside of Modjadjiskloof. (read more about this attraction here: The Big Boabar).
South Africa’s two biggest baobabs
The Sagole baobab lies between Tshipise and Pafuri. There are plans afoot to create a picnic site around the tree and hopefully the dirt road to the tree will also receive some attention. The local government has been advised to build a boardwalk around the tree, as when many feet trample the ground around the base baobabs can no longer absorb water as they should.
The Glencoe baobab is just outside the town of Hoedspruit on a private farm owned by Cecil Liversage, who accepts visitors interested in viewing the tree. Its circumference, up until recently, was 47 metres, until the tree split into two parts.