Grotesque or glorious; weird or wonderful. Nobody is neutral about the baobab tree (Adansonia spp.) The tree's bottle-shaped trunk stores thousands of gallons of rain water, but that is only one of numerous features that make this species a standout. The exceptional baobab provides nurture, water, shelter and medicine to those in its native range.
Not Your Ordinary Tree
Some trees, like some people, seem to come from a grander planet than others, standing larger-than-life -- figuratively, if not literally. The baobab is one such species. The trunks of some types of baobabs can rise to 100 feet tall, with a circumference up to 90 feet. The bark is thick and gray-brown; the leaves, big as an adult's hand, fall during the dry season.
Astonishing Water Storage Capacity
The baobab makes use of its wide, hollow trunk to store water. Some types of African baobabs can stock as much as 31,700 gallons of water at one time, according to aquaculture experts at Langston University. Stored water helps the baobab survive the hot temperatures and extended droughts common in its native habitat -- the hot, dry woodlands of Africa, Madagascar and Australia. The tree can be cultivated in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 through 12 but requires a protected location in USDA zone 10A.
Fruit Like Dried Rats
The tree's flowers and fruit add to the impression that the baobab comes from another planet. Imagine huge white petals up to 7 inches long surrounding a stamen grouping that resembles a large purple powder puff. The flower buds appear on long, drooping stalks; they bloom, fade and fall within 24 hours. Fruit bats pollinate the flowers, which carry an intense, sweet fragrance while alive and a powerful, unpleasant scent when dead. A baobab fruit is the shape and size of a large gourd, grey and velvety, filled with black seeds. Some claim that the fruit resembles dried rats hanging by their tails, a perception responsible for one nickname: dried rat tree.
Baobab's Myriad Gifts
The baobab's almost mythic reputation comes from the plethora of bounty it provides to the humans living in its native range. The hollow trunks are used as water gathering stations, houses, prisons and pubs. Bees also build their hives within the trunk void. Baobab leaves and tender new sprouts serve as vegetables, cooked or eaten fresh or dried. The black seeds are roasted for a coffee-like beverage. The baobab foliage attracts caterpillars, another African food source, and provides food for cattle and wild animals. Bark fiber can be harvested to make clothing, ropes and fishing nets, and the tree replaces the stripped bark.
- Photo Credit Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images