What Are Baobabs? – The Tree of Life

Meet the tree that can do it all, from resisting fires to building its very own ecosystem!

The baobab trees of Madagascar. Source
The baobab trees of Madagascar, Credit: Wikimedia/Rouddi

Off the coast of southeast Africa is island called Madagascar. Like the movie might tell you, this island is a treasure trove of fantastical creatures—each one more enchanting than the last. After millions of years of isolation, life on Madagascar has evolved into a breath-taking variety of life forms, with nearly 2,900 tree species that are endemic to the land. One rather fascinating resident of the island’s bone-dry savannas is the iconic Tree of Life—the baobab tree.

So, what are the baobabs?

It’s safe to say that baobabs have a truly unique silhouette. A quick scan through the grasslands of southeast Africa, and you wouldn’t be able to miss them. Towering at well over 100ft, with enormous swollen trunks that span over 25m wide, the baobab tree casts an impressive shadow. Since these trees don’t bear leaves for most of the year, and their gnarly twisting branches look more like roots sticking out in the air, the locals fondly refer to the baobabs as upside-down trees! 

Baobabs are also called upside-down trees
Baobabs are also called upside-down trees, Credit: Wikimedia/Hiroki Ogawa

In the botanical world, we know these upside-down trees to be part of the genus Adansonia. There are nine different species in total, with six found only in Madagascar. The most commonly found baobab is Adansonia digitata. These sturdy trees are some of the oldest, largest, and longest-living angiosperms, or flowering trees. They are thought to have evolved nearly 200 million years ago (they were even there when the dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago!). Baobabs tend to live for a long time because of their ability to grow new stems while most other trees usually grow new branches. These stems can fuse into a ring-like shape with a cavity in the middle. It’s no wonder that scientists have taken a liking to these trees!

 

So, why are the baobab trees shaped the way they are? Time to think like a scientist! When we’re looking at something new, we can usually tell a lot about how something functions by taking a closer look at its structure. Turns out, the peculiar build of the baobab helps it stay cool even in the hottest of climates!

A baobab’s ability to adapt

Baobabs grow in rather stressful conditions—the land they grow in is hot and arid, with limited rains to turn to for relief. Most tiny bushes may not be able to handle such a climate! So, how do baobabs survive and grow in these harsh environments? They adapt, of course!

 

The process of adaptation helps an organism become better suited for its environment over generations. This process can either happen in a few years, or in a few thousand years. Over their 200 million years of evolution, the baobabs have gained unique adaptations that help them grow!

The trunk of the baobab tree helps it survive in hot and arid places
The trunk of the baobab tree helps it survive in hot and arid places, Credit: Wikimedia/Bernard Gagnon

Let’s start at the trunk. The outer bark of the giant baobab tree trunk is quite distinctive, as it is slick and shiny. The baobabs keep their cool as their shiny exterior reflects the light and heat coming from the sun. Some scientists also think that this reflective bark may help in keeping wildfires at bay! These trees also tend to lose their leaves for about nine months in a year as a way of resisting fires.

 

Another one of its many adaptations is its spongy bark on the inside. Just like a sponge can hold onto water, the porous inner bark of the baobab tree allows it to absorb as much water as possible. Whenever the land experiences rainfall, the spongy bark gets working to store it to use during times of drought. A baobab tree can hold up to 120,000 liters (31,700 gallons) of water! 

The baobab tree can store up to 120,000 liters (31,700 gallons) of water
The baobab tree can store up to 120,000 liters (31,700 gallons) of water, Credit: Wikimedia/Frits Ahlefeldt

Whenever water shows up, whether as morning dews or heavy showers, the baobab tree tries to catch as much as it can with its stems. These weaving stems tend to form U-shaped funnels that hold water for long enough for the tree to soak it in over the day. When water is abundant, they do all of their growing. When the conditions are right, these trees can grow very fast during a short period of time

Baobabs can build their own ecosystems

These resourceful trees can build their own ecosystem
These resourceful trees can build their own ecosystem, Credit: Wikimedia/Pasleim

Baobabs are definitely resourceful trees—but that’s not all! These trees are crucial for their landscape. Each tree helps recharge the soil and provides relief for other creatures. In fact, an old baobab tree can build its own ecosystem! These trees can provide and sustain so many different organisms, from the tiny birds that build their nests on its branches to the fruit bats that drink that help pollinate the baobab flowers in exchange for their sweet nectar. While fruit bats may pollinate the flowers of the baobabs in mainland Africa, closer to Madagascar, the task of pollination is usually done by mouse lemurs and hawk moths! Baobabs also have visitors, like the baboons that come to feed on its nutrient-dense fruit, or even the occasional elephant that can chop down the entire tree! 

 

Baobabs are indispensable to human beings. For as long as human beings have roamed the earth, they’ve always turned to nature for answers—from food to shelter. It is no different for the baobab tree. People have found many ways to utilize the services that the baobabs provide. For example, the fruit from the baobab tree is highly sought after because it is packed with nutrients like vitamin C and vitamin B6. Not only that, it’s also rich in minerals like iron, and has tons of anti-oxidants making the fruit a superfood! Much traditional medicine used to cure diseases, like asthma, depends on fresh baobab leaves. The fiber from the bark is also used to make an endless amount of things, from rope and cloth to musical instruments and waterproof hats!

 

We aren’t the first to recognize how incredibly cool the baobab tree is. We know about the importance of the baobab from its presence in the rural folklore of Africa. With so many life-sustaining services, it’s easy to see why these trees are called the Tree of Life!

Glossary

Adaptation: The process by which an organism becomes better suited to its environment over multiple generations.

 

Endemic: Something native and found only in a particular place

 

Ecosystem: All organisms that live and interact with each other in a specific environment

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.2

 

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 66.8

A Description of the Flowers of the Baobab Tree and How They Are Pollinated. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://homeguides.sfgate.com/description-flowers-baobab-tree-pollinated-104711.html

 

Baobab: The Upside Down Tree Legends & Facts✔️. (2020, September 1). https://safarisafricana.com/baobab-upside-down-tree/

 

Top 6 Benefits of Baobab Fruit and Powder. (2018, October 8). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/baobab

 

Boabab Tree—Southern African Trees—Adansonia digitata. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_baobab.html

 

Scientists wanted to understand how baobab trees live for thousands of years. Then the ancient trees started dying. (2018, June 13). Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/baobab-tree-climate-change/

 

The Adaptations of the Baobab Tree. (n.d.). Sciencing. Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://sciencing.com/adaptations-baobab-tree-8344865.ht

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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Author

  • Swarna Ramakrishnan

    Swarna Ramakrishnan has been fascinated by the natural world ever since she was a young girl! She graduated from Azim Premji University, India with a Bachelor’s in Biology and a minor in applied mathematics. During her research, she trekked through the beautiful forests of the Western Ghats in India to answer questions about stomata and climate change. Currently, she is pursuing her Master’s in Biophysics from Ulm University, Germany. Swarna writes for Smore magazine to spread stories of nature in hopes of inspiring the next generation of scientists!