Tree that doubles as prison and pub

The Remarkable Baobab
July 22, 2005

The baobab is a tree that has fascinated many travellers to Africa, and because of its unusual growth form it has given rise to countless myths and legends among the natives. A strangely shaped tree with a potbelly and branches that make it look as if it is upside down is bound to attract interest and also make a good topic for a book. The baobab tree has been put to multiple uses, from medicine and the edible fruit to the use of its hollow trunk as a rubbish tip, a shelter, a place of worship and even a pub and a prison.

This is a book of sheer baobab entertainment rather than a scientific text.

However, a great deal of good scientific information is gradually woven in: for example, we read about the bat pollination of the African species and the hawk moth pollination of the Australian one. At least half the pages are of most beautiful and interesting photos of baobabs taken mainly by the author on his extensive travels in pursuit of baobabs wherever they grow.

This is a personal account of the author's encounter with numerous individual baobab trees in many different places.

The baobab was first described scientifically by the young French explorer and botanist Michel Adanson when he was visiting Senegal in August 1749.

When he encountered a magnificent baobab tree, he gave up his plans for a day of hunting to describe and document his discovery. Later, he found many other baobab trees, including one 23.5m in girth.

Adanson's scholarly account of his discovery was taken up by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who named the new genus Adansonia for its discoverer.

In addition to the single widespread African species of baobab that extends from West and Central Africa to East Africa and south to Namibia and South Africa, there are six species in Madagascar and a single one in Australia, where its local name has been shortened to the boab.

The various theories of how the baobab dispersed from Madagascar to Australia are discussed. It is thought that a seed pod floated across the seas and ended up in Australia, where a local species of hawkmoth was conveniently waiting to pollinate the flower.

Much of the book is a tour of individual baobab trees that the author has visited. We are introduced to three of Africa's giants. The Duiwelskloof and the Sagole giants each measure 39m in circumference, so it is hardly surprising that there was a pub in one of them for a while. The baobab has also been cultivated as a curiosity in other parts of the world. The 65-year-old tree at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Florida is already 6m round the trunk, indicating how quickly they grow.

At each tree, the reader learns new facts about its biology and growth.

With its warted grey bark and its enormous size, the baobab is often called the elephant tree. It also has a special relationship with elephants. In time of drought and food scarcity, the tree can be ripped apart by the animals, who tear off strips of the spongy bark to chew and then spit it out after extracting the juices and salts.

The baobab is one of the tree wonders of the world. It is good to have such a well-illustrated and readable book about it.

Sir Ghillean Prance is former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is scientific director of the Eden Project.

The Remarkable Baobab

Author - Thomas Pakenham
Publisher - Weidenfield and Nicolson
Pages - 143
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 297 84373 7

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