"Enfants! Faites attentions aux baobabs!"
(Children! Beware of the baobabs!)

The baobabs have reached almost mythical status simply from being what they are: Great. Ancient. Trees. It seems like magic: From the tiny seed of the monkey-bread, these giant trees can grow, grow, and grow, for over a thousand years, to become the undisputed lords of the African trees.

The Adansonia digitata was named after Michel Adanson, the naturalist who first described it in about 1750. It lives in dry areas such as the African savannah and cannot survive flooding. Although it originates in Central Africa, the tree also thrives in Australia, India and the Caribbean, where it has been imported.

The main characteristic of the tree is its girth. The trunks can reach enormous proportions through the centuries. In order to survive in arid climate, the tree develops hollows in its trunk where it collects water. With time, these hollows can become big enough to accomodate people, and more - baobab trees have found use as shops, prisons, living quarters and bus shelters.

The bark of the tree is smooth and shiny, coloured pinkish grey or copper. Its flowers are white and open at night. They are found and fertilised by fruit bats and bush babies who drink their nectar. The flower wilts and falls after 24 hours, and its petals are devoured by the impala and the grey duiker. According to local belief, anyone who picks a baobab flower will be eaten by a lion.

The green, hairy fruits are eaten by monkeys, baboons and elephants who scatter the seeds about. Young trees do not look like adult ones at all, which is why in the olden days people thought the baobab arrived suddenly from elsewhere, fully grown. Likewise, the trees do not die a normal death. When they reach a ripe old age they collapse after rotting from the inside, seemingly disappearing.

According to an ancient legend, the tree used to grow in the garden of the god Thora. One day he was fed up with it, so he tore it up and threw it out of Paradise. The tree landed upside down, and continued growing. And true enough, the bare branches of the baobab do look like roots. The tree is also very difficult to kill. If stripped of bark or even burnt, it will simply heal itself and get on with life.

Maybe this is why The Little Prince is so afraid of the baobabs. After all, he lives on a planet too small to harbour even one of the gargantuan trees.

Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces . . .

This wisdom from Antoine de Saint-Exupery was translated by Katherine Woods.

Ba"o*bab (?), n. [The native name.] Bot.

A gigantic African tree (Adansonia digitata), also naturalized in India. See Adansonia.

 

© Webster 1913.

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