Surely one of the most unusual trees on earth, the African Baobab is elephant-like in a land of elephants, with a vastly stocky trunk and humanoid branches. Bears pendulous, giant, white-winged flowers that sport globular arrays of yellow-tipped stamens and give way to the velvety, elongated fruits. These fruits contain a powdery pulp, rich in citric and tartaric acid (also quercetin), that makes a refreshing, tart, astringent drink. The young leaves of the tree are steamed and eaten as a nutritious food. The bark is twisted into fiber and used in basketry or rope making. The plant prefers dry conditions, well-drained soil and tolerates full sun. A rarity in domestic culture.
The African baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) is one of the eight species of baobab (Adansonia) and the only one native to mainland Africa. Like other baobabs, the African baobab is a massive deciduous fruit tree, up to 20-30 m high, with a lifespan of several hundred years. Its swollen and often hollow trunk looks like a huge bottle and can be as broad as 3-7 m in diameter. It bears short, stout and tortuous branches and has a thin canopy. Baobab is strongly anchored in the soil by an extensive and strong root system that grows 2 m deep, and whose diameter may be higher than the tree height. The leaves are simple or digitally compound, dark-green on top, and borne at the end of a 16 cm-long petiole. The leaflets are between 5-15 cm long and 1.5-7 cm broad. The baobab shed its leaves during the early dry season and new leaves appear after flowering. The pentamerous flowers are white, large (20 cm in diameter and 25 cm long), and hang from stalks on pedicels up to 90 cm long. The fruit is a voluminous (35 cm long and 17 cm in diameter) ovoid capsule with a hard, woody envelope containing a pulp and black seeds. Once ripe, the fruit envelope becomes brittle and the pulp takes on a chalky consistency.
The baobab is mainly used for food. The fruits, flowers, leaves, shoots, roots of seedlings and even the tree roots are edible. The leaves can be used either fresh, as a cooked vegetable, or dried and powdered as a functional ingredient (thickener) of soups and sauces. The flowers, shoots and roots of seedlings are eaten. The fruits, called monkey-bread, contain a white, mealy, acidic tasting nutritious flesh that can be eaten as a sweet, used to make refreshing drinks and ice-creams, or used to adulterate and curdle milk. The seeds yield an edible and pleasant tasting oil, and oil extraction results in an oil meal. The bark is used for fiber or as firewood. The roots, that are boiled and eaten in times of famine, contain tannins that provide a useful red dye. Baobab trees provide fodder for animals: young leaves, fruits, seeds and the oil meal are consumed by livestock. Zones 10 to 12.
The seeds have a hard seed coat that has to be treated, or scarified, in order for water to enter the seeds so that they can sprout.
Scarify the large, roundish seeds and plant in warm, sandy soil. Scarify by rubbing on sandpaper in one spot until the seed coat is rubbed through and the white pericarp just shows. Alternately, hold the seed down on a cutting board with one finger and slice through one end of the seed, thus revealing a small window through which you will see the white pericarp. Incomplete scarification will yield no results–the seed coat must be pierced!
- To scarify the seeds, nick or sand the seed coat with sandpaper.
- Soak the seed in warm water for 24-48 hours.
- The seeds like moist, well-drained soil. Prepare a mixture of half potting soil and half sand, perlite or vermiculite. Put the soil in a pot. Water the mixture so that it is moist but not wet.
- Put the seeds on the soil.
- Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil.
- Water the seeds.
- Place the pots in an area with warm temperatures in full sun.
- When the seedlings are a few inches tall, they can be transplanted.