The Baobab Tree

One of the stories in The Butterfly Heart is about a Baobab tree. These trees are a feature of the Zambian landscape but are also found throughout Sub Saharan Africa, Australia and Madagascar. There are also three famous Baobabs in Savanur, India which are believed to be thousands of years old – and local people say Lord Krishna brought the seeds there from Africa.

The tree has many alternative names – the Tree of Life, The Upside Down Tree, Lemonade Tree, Monkey Bread Tree, Cream of Tartar Tree, Mbuyu (Swahili).

I think the Tree of Life is the best name because this tree is astonishing in what it provides for humans; water, shelter, food, rope and cloth from the bark and medicine; and for animals, food (baboons love the fruit, elephants eat every part of the tree and bats drink the nectar from the flowers and act as pollinators…) and shelter (birds build nests in it, in the branches and in the little holes in the trunk).

The fruit looks like this –

and there are endless uses for it:  in some parts of Africa the roasted seeds are sugar coated and sold as snacks, elsewhere the seeads are eaten raw or roasted, the pulp can be cooked, dried, powdered, stewed, grilled – eaten in any which way, and is filled with Vitamin C, Calcium and all sorts of other things that are good for you. It is often used to make cool drinks and the cream of tartar in it is used in baking.

The tree itself is an extraordinary looking plant, and some are so huge they have been hollowed out and used as living spaces. They live in areas often affected by drought and bush fires – and survive all of this as their timber naturally stores enormous amounts of water. Traditionally people have also found ways to hollow them out to store additional water for use during times of drought.

There are Baobab trees which have been around for 5,000 years and some of the huge ones found in different parts of Africa have over the centuries been put to weird and wonderful uses: one in Zimbabwe was used as a bus shelter, another one for storing wheelbarrows and tools; in West Africa sometimes they were used as burial places and in Nigeria one was used back in the nineteenth century as a prison!

Luckily for the Baobab its wood is not much use for anything – it is too spongy and wet – which may explain why so many of them live to a ripe old age.

Here’s a picture of a baobab put to an unusual use..

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