the baobab trees of Africa -- 12/5/22

Today's selection -- from Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees by Jared Farmer. Africa’s longest-lived trees are the baobabs:
"The oldest relationship between humans and ancient trees naturally oc­curs in Africa. The continent's longest-lived tree is the largest, too. Amaz­ingly wide for its height, a mature baobab appears otherworldly. Leafless for most the year -- an energy conservation strategy -- its branches resem­ble roots marooned in the sky. According to traditional stories, the orig­inal baobab was planted upside down as punishment by gods, heroes, or hyenas.

"The 'upside-down tree' also goes by 'elephant tree.' The connection between Africa's greatest megaflora and megafauna goes beyond size. The calloused bark of a baobab is elephantine in color and texture. Botanists speak of pachycauls (thick-stemmed plants) as a cognate of pachyderms (thick-skinned mammals). Moreover, bush elephants consume the bark. In the dry season, tusked males gouge the trunks, peel away strips, and chew their fibrous trophies.

"Baobabs heal over wounds that would kill other trees. They are among nature's apex regenerators. Their wood contains a high percentage of liv­ing cells, and a high percentage of water -- up to 80 percent. Contrary to popular belief, a baobab doesn't perform hydraulic storage like a barrel cactus. Rather, it uses all that watery tissue to prop itself up. The tree is elastic, swelling and shrinking over seasons and stages of life. To keep its spongy mass intact requires a special outer later, like a rind.

"From the inside, old baobabs hollow out, producing roomy recesses. Their uses are limited only by imagination. In a haunting Afrikaans­ language novel, a woman escapes enslavement by confining herself in a tree: 'You, trusty baobab, confidant, home, fort, water source, medicine chest, honey holder, my refuge, my last resort .... You protect me. I re­vere you.' The useful emptiness of baobabs had impressed lbn Battuta, one of the best-traveled persons of the fourteenth century. He saw trees of 'great age and girth' on the road to Mali. 'I was surprised to find inside one tree, by which I passed, a man, a weaver, who had set up his loom in it and was actually weaving.' In Mali and in Sudan, on the western and eastern edges of the Sahara, Africans introduced baobab, and later generations burrowed out giants to form networks of cisterns -- ­infrastructural trees that in time became war targets.

"If humans are destroyers, what explains the coexistence of hominins and baobab over millions of years? The longevity of the relationship can be expressed in economic terms as a dynamic of uselessness and useful­ness. The tree's absorbent tissue barely qualifies as wood -- no good for building, burning, or charcoal-making. Besides, a fat-stemmed succulent is unchoppable. One tree can defeat a bulldozer, as British planners dis­covered during their abortive East African Groundnut Scheme. Baobab never grew as forests that farmers burned for farmland. Instead, isolated giants of the savannah inspired pastoralists and agriculturalists alike to situate their camps and villages nearby, and to plant future giants in the neighborhood. Humans long ago succeeded monkeys as the main dis­persers of the species.

"In addition to shade, shelter, and storage, African baobab gives foods, medicines, and textiles. Its velvety seedpods contain roastable seeds sur­rounded by vitamin-rich pulp that can be eaten raw or processed into meal. (In French, the species goes by 'monkey bread tree'; in Afrikaans, 'cream-of-tartar tree.') Leaves can be cooked; roots can be nibbled. Peo­ple peel the bark and convert it into rope for weaving. If debarking is performed properly, and if the tree is allowed to heal, the process can be repeated in future years. All over sub-Saharan Africa, ethnic groups devised customary rules to manage the utilization of this resource that combined the properties of wild organism, crop plant, and sacred tree. Among the Dogon people of Mali, for example, tree guardians wearing terrifying masks patrolled communal baobabs.

"The tree's genus name, Adansonia, honors French naturalist Michel Adanson. He arrived in Senegal in 1749 and set to work filling his enor­mous collecting cabinet. He beheld his first baobab on Goree Island. On another island near Dakar, he observed a huge specimen with overlaid names and dates carved by European voyagers as far back as the four­teenth century -- imperial claims of possession. This palimpsest caused Adanson to muse that the lives of these giants 'must continue many thousand years, and, perhaps, reach as far back as the deluge.'"



Jared Farmer


Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Jared Farmer


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