Shrouded in mystery and the stuff of myriad African legends, the mighty baobab is a tree like no other and one that Abelana Game Reserve is blessed to have growing amongst its dramatic rocky outcrops.
Known as the “upside down tree” because it’s branches resemble tangled root systems, the baobab is an enigma thanks to its longevity and tendency to grow exceptionally large, especially where girth is concerned. There are actually eight species of baobab in the world, with most occurring on the island of Madagascar and one occurring in Australia. Here on the African mainland we have only one example of this fascinating species – Adansonia digitata – the most widespread of all the baobabs, occurring across the continent.
To say that the baobab grows slowly is an understatement. It can take decades to reach the height of an average person and, depending on rainfall, can take centuries to fruit in some cases! So don’t expect to see a small seedling mature into a gargantuan specimen in a single lifetime! Especially when you understand that some of the largest examples of this amazing tree are literally thousands of years old!
When estimating a baobab’s age, a simple rule of thumb is to allocate 100 years for each metre of the trunk’s circumference. So a 15m circumference would result in a 1500 year-old tree. The Sagole Big Tree is one of the biggest baobabs in South Africa and has a circumference of 32,89 metres, which means it probably bore its first fruit around the time when Ramses II was pharaoh of Egypt and Moses was mobilising the Israelites! Meanwhile, the Sunland Baobab, also in South Africa, is regarded as one of the oldest baobabs in the world, with a whopping 47,2m circumference. That’s almost 5000 years in the making (although some experts say it’s closer to 6000 years old, thanks to radio carbon dating information). Here on Abelana, our biggest baobab is 17,12m in circumference, meaning that it’s been growing here for somewhere in the region of 1712 years! So it most likely popped its first sprout out of our soil in the early days of the 4th century AD! Apart from being very old it has hosted some momentous celebrations, such as a recent 50th wedding anniversary, and it’s a great backdrop to a bush dinner…
Whichever way you look at it, the baobab is the worlds biggest and longest-living flowering tree – once mature, it flowers and fruits once a year, usually at the start of the rainy season (around November for Southern Africa). Its beautiful, pendulous white flowers open at night and attract another giant – the massive African hawk moth, whose long proboscis has evolved to reach the nectar at the base of the flower, pollinating in the process.
Baobab fruits are a source of cream of tartar and are favoured by lots of animals when they fall to the ground, although they can prove difficult to open thanks to their tough, furry shell and fibrous nature. Its leaves are a delicacy for humans too, and are boiled to make a spinach-like dish and are used in traditional medicines. The bark is woven into rope, cloth and even hats after being pounded thoroughly to soften its fibres. And that swollen, blubbery looking trunk is, in fact, a way to store water, helping the baobab survive in even the most arid of climates.
Peeling its bark off won’t kill a baobab, thanks to the way it grows, not from one core but from multiple different core stems. It’s this growing system that makes the trees so large and so long-lived and makes baobabs very difficult to kill. They form new bark very easily and just carry on growing. When they do die, they rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a tangled heap of fibres. So when you come and visit us here at Abelana Game Reserve, don’t forget to drop by and give our wonderful baobabs a big hug… After all, they’ve been waiting a long time for it!