Regarded as the largest succulent plant in the world, Adansonia digitata, commonly known as African Baobab, is steeped in a wealth of mystique, legend, and superstition wherever it occurs in Africa. Yet, it is a tree that can provide food, water, shelter, and relief from sickness.
Often referred to as "grotesque" by some authors, the main stem of larger African Baobab may reach enormous proportions of up to 92 feet (28 m) in girth. Although African Baobab seldom exceeds a height of 82 feet (25 m). The massive, usually squat cylindrical trunk gives rise to thick tapering branches resembling a root system, often called Upside-down Tree. There is a tale that tells of how God planted them upside-down. Many traditional Africans believe that the African Baobab grows upside-down.
African Baobab is found in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, and other tropical African countries where suitable habitat occurs. It is restricted to hot, dry woodland on stony, well-drained soils in frost-free areas that receive low rainfall.
People have used giant African Baobab with hollow stems for centuries for various purposes, including houses, prisons, pubs, storage barns, and even bus stops. Rainwater often collects in the large branches' clefts, and travelers and local people often use this valuable water source. African honey bees often utilize hollows in the African Baobab to make their hives.
The leaves are rich in vitamin C, sugars, potassium tartrate, and calcium. They are cooked fresh as a vegetable or dried and crushed for later use by local people. The sprout of a young tree can be eaten like asparagus. The root of very young trees is also reputed to be edible. Seeds are also edible and can be roasted as a coffee substitute.
The bark on the lower part of the trunk often bears scars caused by local people who harvest and pound it to retrieve the strong fiber. The fibrous bark is used to make various useful items such as mats and ropes, fishing nets, fishing lines, sacks, and clothing.
Although it is seldom available in nurseries, African Baobab is quite easily grown from seed. Seeds can be collected from dry fruits by cracking the fruit open and washing away the dry powdery coating. The dark brown to black, kidney-shaped seeds should be soaked in a container of hot water and allowed to cool, and they may then be sown after soaking for 24 hrs. Seeds are best sown in spring and summer in a well-drained seedling mixture containing one-third sand.
Cover the seed with sand to a depth of 0.15 to 0.25 inches (0.4 to 0.6 cm), place the trays in a warm semi-shaded position, and water regularly until the seeds have germinated. Germination may take from 2 to 6 weeks. Seedlings should be carefully monitored for damping-off fungus, which can be treated with a fungicidal drench.
Transplant the seedlings once they are 2 inches (5 cm) tall into individual containers, preferably in sandy soil with some well-rotted compost and bone meal. Baobabs grow reasonably quickly when they are young.
They will make a handsome addition to a large garden, estate, or large parkland, providing the soil is not waterlogged. But unfortunately, African Baobab cannot tolerate even mild frost.
When it is young, the African Baobab does not resemble its adult counterparts, the stems are thin and inconspicuous, and its leaves are simple and not divided into the 5 to 7 lobes of the adult trees.
Saplings can be effectively grown in containers or tubs for many years before becoming too large and requiring to be planted into the ground. In this manner, one can move them out of the cold into a warm position in a glasshouse or indoors behind a sunny window to prevent frost damage.