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Adansonia digitata (Baobab, Upside-down Tree)

Kremetart, Kremetartboom [Afrikaans]; motsoo [North Sotho]; omukura [Ovambo]; ximuwu, shimuwu [Tsonga]; mowana, movana [Tswana]; muvhuyu [Venda]; isiMuku [Zulu]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid II > Order: Malvales > Family: Malvaceae > Genus: Adansonia

Of the 8 species of Adansonia, this is the only species that occurs in Africa. The Baobab is one of the most well known African tree species, partly because of its extraordinary size and appearance but also because of its many uses.

Baobabs can grow to a moderate height of about 10-22 m but their most impressive feature is the huge, broad trunk which can reach over 15 m in diameter. In winter when the tree has lost its leaves, it has the appearance of having been turned upside down, hence the name, Upside-down Tree.

The largest baobabs in South Africa 

(from Esterhuyse et al. 2001)

Place

Trunk diameter (m)

Crown diameter (m)

Height (m)

Glencoe tree, near Hoedspruit

15.9

37.05

17

Platland tree, near Duiwelskloof

10.64

35.3

19

Buffelsdrift tree, Potgietersrus district

7.71

30.2

22

Sagole tree, east of Tshipise

10.47

38.2

22

Taking all measurements into account, the Sagole tree is regarded as being the largest of the 4 listed above and overall is regarded as the largest tree in South Africa. The record largest diameter tree trunk in the world is of a Mexican Bald Cypress tree Taxodium mucronatum in Mexico which has a diameter of 18.4 m (Esterhuyse et al. 2001).

Tree diameter is influenced by rainfall, the trunk becoming narrower in dry years. For instance, a tree measured in 1946 was 60 cm less in diameter than it was in 1931.

The age of these large baobabs cannot be reliably established using tree rings. Carbon dating has shown that a 7 m diameter tree is about 600 years old, so a large tree is probably over 1000 years old. This age is a lot less than some previous estimates that have been placed at over 5000 years old.

Distribution

Occurs in savanna / woodland regions south of the Sahara. Within South Africa, the Baobab is found mainly in Limpopo Province, although its distribution does extend marginally into northern Northwest Province and northern Mpumalanga.

Explanation of names

Adansonia: Named after a French surgeon Michel Adanson (1727-1806).

digitata: hand-shaped, referring to the shape of the leaves.

Uses

Whole plant

  • Large trees often become hollowed out and such cavities have been used by people as houses, prisons, post offices, bars, storage barns and toilets.
  • Plants are grown as bonsai specimens.

Flowers

  • Fallen flowers provide food for cattle.

Fruit

  • The pith of the fruit contains high levels of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), tartaric acid and citric acid and is used in producing a refreshing drink. This drink is used medicinally to treat fevers, diarrhoea, and haemoptysis (spitting of blood from the lungs). The fruit can also be eaten, fresh or dry.
  • Pith and seeds are nutritious and are fed to stock when grazing is poor, especially near the end of the dry season.

Seeds

  • Seeds are eaten fresh or dried. 
  • They can also be ground into a powder used as a substitute for coffee.

Leaves

  • Young leaves are eaten as a spinach or the leaves can be dried and ground into a powder that can be stored for later use. Leaves are rich in vitamin C, sugars and potassium tartrate.
  • Fallen leaves provide food for cattle.
  • The leaves are used medicinally against fever by reducing sweating and acting as an astringent by tightening mucous membranes thus reducing mucous secretions.
  • In West Africa, the leaves (and bark) are used for treating urinary disorders and diarrhoea.

Bark

  • The inner bark yields a fibre that is used for rope, baskets, nets and fishing lines.
  • In West Africa, a decoction is made from the bark and used for treating urinary disorders and diarrhoea.

Roots

  • Roots can be tapped for water.
  • Young roots are cooked and eaten.

Interactions

Leaves on the tree are eaten by game such as Elephant, Kudu, Nyala and Impala. Fallen leaves and flowers are eaten by game as well as cattle. Elephant tear off pieces of stem for the moisture they contain and in the process can kill trees. Baobabs in areas with high elephant densities can be devastated by this destructive feeding behaviour. 

 

The large white flowers (13-18 cm diameter) are pollinated by fruit bats (Chiroptera: Megachiroptera).

 

Links

Publications

  • Esterhuyse, N., von Breitenbach, J. & Söhnge, H. 2001. Remarkable Trees of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

  • van Wyk, B., van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 2000. Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

  • Wickens, G.E. 1982. The baobab - Africa's upside-down tree. Kew Bulletin 37: 173-209.

Text by Hamish Robertson 


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