The baobab tree is a large tree from the African steppes and semi-arid regions of Madagascar, and is also found on the Australian continent. This plant was widely publicised in the 20th century through The Little Prince by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery. His main character was concerned about the excessive growth of the baobab, fearing that it would take up all the space on his asteroid.
The baobab has a very thick trunk at the base, reaching nine metres in diameter. Its trunk is peculiar: narrowing into a cone shape with large protuberances. The leaves sprout between the months of July and January, but if the tree can retain moisture, they can stand firm throughout the year. In general, the baobab flowers only on a single night, and this occurs from May to August. During the few hours in which the flowers are open, consumers of night nectars – particularly bats – ensure the plant’s pollination.
This colossal plant can reach thirty metres in height. Healers or spellcasters of the African savannah hollow out some of the baobabs with larger trunks and can store up to 120,000 litres of water in them*. For this reason, it is called the “bottle tree”. In Senegal, the baobab is sacred, being used as a source of inspiration for legends, rites and poetry. According to an old African legend, if a dead person is buried within a baobab, their soul will live as long as the plant does. And the baobab has a very long life; it lives between one and six thousand years. In plant species, only the sequoia – a large conifer from California (USA) that measures up to twelve metres in diameter, reaches a hundred high and fifty metres in height and lives for more than four thousand years – and Japanese cedar – another conifer – can compete with the longevity of the baobab.
This mythical and solitary tree from the African savannah is part of the Bombacaceae family (a word derived from Bomba, a language spoken and made official in Equatorial Guinea). This name, however, changes according to the language of each country. In Angola and Mozambique, the baobab is called ‘imbondeiro’, while in Guinea-Bissau, it is called ‘pólon’.
In 1444, led by Gomes Piers, Portuguese navigators reached the African island of Gorée (today belonging to Senegal) and remained there until 1595, when the island became a Dutch territory. Mariners recorded that they could still appreciate the Dom Henrique Coat of Arms engraved on trees. In turn, in the middle of the 15th century, chronicler Gomes de Eanes Zurara described the trees as such in his work The Chronicle of Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (Lisbon, 1453):
Trees of great size, and of strange forms, and among these was one which was not less than 108 palms [around 25 metres] in circuit at the foot. And this tree doth not grow very high, but is about as lofty as the walnut tree and from its middle bark they make very good thread for cordage, and it burneth like flax. The fruit is like a gourd, and its seed are the size of hazelnuts; local people eat the green fruit, dry the seeds and store huge amounts of it.
Before the discovery, the baobab was not part of the Brazilian flora. The most plausible hypothesis in trying to explain their existence in Pernambuco is that it was brought in the 17th century by Count Maurice of Nassau during the Dutch occupation to be part of his private botanical garden (which was built next to today’s Praça da República). A second version, however, credits the presence of the baobab to migratory birds, which would have brought its seeds with them. And Câmara Cascudo considered a third possibility: that African priests brought seeds from Africa and planted them in specific locations in the country for religious worship. Remember that the practitioners of Candomblé consider the baobab a sacred tree, and say that you should not cut it down or tear from it.
In 1749, French researcher Michel Adanson, returning from his trip to Saint-Louis, Senegal, produced drawings and described as follows in its records:
I perceived a tree of prodigious thickness, which drew my whole attention. This was a calabash-tree [baobab], which the Jaloffes call goui in their language. Probably the most useful tree in all of Africa ... the universal tree to the natives.
Since then, the researchers Bernard de Jussieu and Charles Linne credited Michel Adanson with the scientific name of the baobab, calling it Adansonia digitata. And in France, from 1791, the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert adopted that name. To date, eight species of baobab trees have been classified, however most of them are found in Madagascar. The baobab were classified as follows:
Adansonia digitata (Central and Southern Africa)
Adansonia grandidieri (Madagascar)
Adansonia gregorii (or Adansonia gibbosa) (Northeast Australia)
Adansonia madagascariensis (Madagascar)
Adansonia perrieri (Madagascar)
Adansonia rubrostipa (or Adansonia fony) (Madagascar)
Adansonia suarezensis (Madagascar)
Adansonia za (Madagascar).
Dating back to 1853, there is another record in Africa on the presence of the baobab. About the legendary tree, while seeing it in the region of Mbour, Father David Boilat wrote:
[...] The trees are surprisingly big and very numerous: I measured some and the diameter was 60-90 feet (20-30 metres). Not only is this tree useful to the natives, it is also essential, they would not survive without it. With its dried leaves, they make a powder they call lalo with which they mix the “kouskous”. They use the roots as a purgative; they drink hot tea to cure chest diseases. The fruit called “monkey bread” is used to curdle milk and is also served with the food they call “lack” or “sangle” [...]. This tree is sometimes hollowed out to form houses [.. .]
The priest went on to say that he had seen a baobab in Africa whose trunk was enormous, reaching twenty-six meters in diameter. In it were two rooms that were used by a family as a home and a shop. It should be noted that in the Kimberleys, an area in Western Australia, there are records of prisoners being incarcerated within baobab trunks.
All elements of the tree are useful for the survival of human beings and also represent a rich source of medicine. The powder ground from its dried leaves has been used to combat anaemia, rickets, diarrhoea, rheumatism and asthma. The leaves are used also as food. By being rich in calcium, iron, proteins and lipids, they are ground and mixed in soups, cereal or added to enrich baby food. This powder, when mixed with water, becomes a drink similar to coconut milk. The roots of baobab seedlings, when cooked properly, are similar to asparagus. The seeds, full of vegetable oil, are baked and eaten. The white pulp and fibres of its fruits contain high levels of vitamin C and are used to combat fever, malaria, measles and chicken pox, and inflammation in the gut. Aborigines eat the fruit of the baobab and use its leaves as medicinal plants.
With regard to construction and carpentry, the baobab is only used when there is no other available material. However, in certain regions, people hollow out its trunk and use it as a community well. The wood of the baobab is used to make musical instruments, and its heartwood renders a very strong fibre that is used in the manufacture of ropes and lines. The shells of its fruit are used as bowls.
In the capital of Pernambuco, rare baobabs that resisted deforestation and environmental depredation were protected by the City and IBAMA in 1986. In Recife, these trees can be enjoyed at Praça da República (in front of the Government Palace); at Praça da SUDENE (in Santo Amaro); on Rua Coronel Urbano Ribeiro Sena (in Fundão); on Rua Madre Loiola (in Ponte d’Uchôa); and in Poço da Panela (in the grounds of two houses that are located respectively on Rua Professor Edgar Altino and Rua Bandeira de Melo).
Outside the metropolitan area of Recife are also few baobabs that have escaped destruction. Only a handful, they can be seen at Engenho Poço Comprido (in Vicência); in the Suape Port Complex (in Cabo); at Usina Ariepibu (in Ribeirão); on Sítio Capivarinha (in Sanharó); at Fazenda Pitombeiras (in Serra Talhada); in the municipality of Tacaratu; on the beach of Porto de Galinhas and the town of Nossa Senhora do Ó (both in the municipality of Ipojuca). In this village, there is a baobab with a circumference of 15.5m* that is over three hundred and fifty years old.
In Rio de Janeiro, there are ten baobab trees, one of them being the largest in Brazil at approximately 25m in height. Nine are located at Praça da República (Campo de Santana), in front of Central do Brasil Railway Station, and one in Campos dos Goytacazes.
*information sent by emails on 15 and 16 March and 21 June 2012, by botanist and researcher Gilberto Vasconcelos.
Recife, 14 November 2003.
(Text updated on 16 March 2012).
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.
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