Baobab Tree

Southern Rhodesia - Scott #87 (1953)
Southern Rhodesia – Scott #87 (1953)

Adansonia is a genus of deciduous trees known as baobabs. They are found in arid regions of Madagascar, mainland Africa, Arabia, and Australia. The generic name honors Michel Adanson, the French naturalist and explorer who described Adansonia digitata.

Of the nine species accepted as of April 2018, six are native to Madagascar, two are native to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and one is native to Australia. One of the mainland African species also occurs on Madagascar, but it is not a native of that island. It was introduced in ancient times to south Asia and during the colonial era to the Caribbean. It is also present in the island nation of Cape Verde. The ninth species was described in 2012, and is found in upland populations of southern and eastern Africa. The African and Australian baobabs are almost identical despite having separated more than 100 million years ago, probably by oceanic dispersal.

In the early 21st century, baobabs in Southern Africa began to die off rapidly from a cause yet to be determined. Scientists believe it is unlikely that disease or pests were able to kill many trees so rapidly, while some estimated that the die-off was a result of dehydrationfrom global warming.

Grandidier's Baobab (Adansonia grandidieri). Photo taken near Morondava, Madagascar, on March 14, 2007.
Grandidier’s Baobab (Adansonia grandidieri). Photo taken near Morondava, Madagascar, on March 14, 2007.

Baobabs reach heights of 16 to 98 feet (5 to 30 m) and have trunk diameters of 23 to 36 feet (7 to 11 m). The Glencoe baobab, a specimen of A. digitata in Limpopo Province, South Africa, was considered to be the largest living individual, with a maximum circumference of 154 feet (47 m) and a diameter of about 52 feet (15.9 m). The tree has since split into two parts, so the widest individual trunk may now be that of the Sunland baobab, or Platland tree, also in South Africa. The diameter of this tree at ground level is 31 feet (9.3 m) and its circumference at breast height is 112 feet (34 m).

Adansonia trees produce faint growth rings, probably annually, but they are not reliable for aging specimens, because they are difficult to count and may fade away as the wood ages. Radiocarbon dating has provided data on a few individuals. A specimen of A. digitataknown as Grootboom was dated and found to be at least 1,275 years old, making it one of the oldest known angiosperm trees. The Panke baobab in Zimbabwe was some 2,500 years old when it died in 2011, and two other trees — Dorslandboom in Namibia and Glencoe in South Africa — were estimated to be approximately 2,000 years old. Greenhouse gases, climate change, and global warming appear to be factors reducing baobab longevity.

Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo taken by Muhammad Mahdi Karim on January 9, 2009
Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo taken by Muhammad Mahdi Karim on January 9, 2009.

The Malagasy species are important components of the Madagascar dry deciduous forests. Within that biome, Adansonia madagascariensis and A. rubrostipa occur specifically in the Anjajavy Forest, sometimes growing out of the tsingy limestone itself. A. digitata has been called “a defining icon of African bushland”.

Baobabs store water in the trunk (up to 32,000 US gallons or 120,000 liters) to endure harsh drought conditions. All occur in seasonally arid areas, and are deciduous, shedding their leaves during the dry season. Across Africa, the oldest and largest baobabs began to die in the early 21st century, likely from a combination of drought and rising temperatures. The trees appear to become parched, then become dehydrated and unable to support their massive trunks.

Baobabs are important as nest sites for birds, in particular the mottled spinetail and four species of weaver.

This baobab fruit was bought in the market of Pemba town, northern Mozambique. Photo taken by Ton Rulkins on May 10, 2013
This baobab fruit was bought in the market of Pemba town, northern Mozambique. Photo taken by Ton Rulkins on May 10, 2013.

The fruit has a velvety shell and is about the size of a coconut, weighing about 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms), but is not as globular. It has an acidic, tart, citrus flavor. It is a good source of vitamin C, potassium, carbohydrates, and phosphorus.

The dried fruit powder of Adansonia digitata, baobab powder, contains about 12% water and modest levels of various nutrients, including carbohydrates, pectin, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and phytosterols, with low levels of protein and fats. Vitamin C content, described as variable in different samples, was in a range of 74 to 163 milligrams (1.14 to 2.52 gr) per 100 grams (3.5 oz) of dried powder. The powdered white pulp may be used as a “thickener in jams and gravies or a tangy flavor addition to hot sauces”.

In the European Union (EU), prior to commercial approval, baobab fruit powder was not available for use as a food ingredient, as legislation from 1997 dictated that foods not commonly consumed in the EU would have to be formally approved first. In 2008, baobab dried fruit pulp was authorized in the EU as a safe food ingredient, and later in the year was granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in the United States.

The dry, mature baobab fruit pulp chunks are shown compared to the three elements that comprise it: a white, opaque powdery edible pulp separated from pinkish fibers and brown baobab seeds. The powdery fruit pulp dissolves easily in water to release it from the fibers and seeds. The seeds are brown, any white patches are remnants of undissolved fruit pulp. Scale: spoon diameters are 6 cm. Hand-cast recycled-metal spoons are resting on a base of millet seeds. West Africa. Photo taken by T.K. Naliaka on May 12, 2015.
The dry, mature baobab fruit pulp chunks are shown compared to the three elements that comprise it: a white, opaque powdery edible pulp separated from pinkish fibers and brown baobab seeds. The powdery fruit pulp dissolves easily in water to release it from the fibers and seeds. The seeds are brown, any white patches are remnants of undissolved fruit pulp. Scale: spoon diameters are 6 cm. Hand-cast recycled-metal spoons are resting on a base of millet seeds. West Africa. Photo taken by T.K. Naliaka on May 12, 2015.

In Tanzania, the dry pulp of A. digitata is added to sugarcane to aid fermentation in beermaking. In Angola, the dry fruit is usually boiled and the broth is used for juices or as the base for a type of ice cream known as gelado de múcua. In Zimbabwe, the fruit is used in traditional food preparations which include “eating the fruit fresh or crushed crumbly pulp to stir into porridge and drinks”. Malawi women have set up commercial ventures harvesting the baobab to earn their children’s school fees.

The fruit pulp and seeds of A. grandidieri and A. za are eaten fresh. The fresh fruit is said to taste like sorbet. The seeds of some species are a source of vegetable oil, and their leaves may be eaten as a leaf vegetable.

Some baobab species are sources of fiber, dye, and fuel. Indigenous Australians used the native species A. gregorii for several products, making string from the root fibers and decorative crafts from the fruits.

Baobab Trees near Morondava, November, 2001
Baobab Trees near Morondava, November, 2001.
A Baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, in the Sahel sub-Saharan savanna. Photo taken at Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, on June 29, 2008
A Baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, in the Sahel sub-Saharan savanna. Photo taken at
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, on June 29, 2008.

Scott #87 is a 6-pence aqua and olive stamp portraying a baobab tree, issued by Southern Rhodesia, on August 31, 1953, as part of a set of 14 Queen Elizabeth II definitive stamps (Scott #81-94). The stamp measures 28 x 22½ mm and is perforated 13½ x14.

Flag of Rhodesia (1964)
Flag of Rhodesia (1964)
Coat of arms of Rhodesia
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