A Christmas holiday with chums down on the South Mombasa coast, and one very sturdy baobab, Adansonia digitata. It’s a tree with many surprising properties: a drought tolerant soft wood that is also fire resistant. It may also live for up to 3,000 years and grow an astonishing 25 metres in girth. The fibrous bark stores water and provides emergency dry season fodder for elephants and elands. Humans also work the fibre to make ropes, twine for basket making and cloth.
Baobabs are leafless for most of the year, which doubtless gave rise to the many traditional tales of an upside-down tree with its roots in the air (planted by creator, or the devil, or hyenas who are always getting things badly wrong). When they do happen, the leaves are large and finger-like and villagers harvest them as vegetables. In the flowering season the branches hang in fleshy cream flowers that only open at night, smell somewhat foetid and are pollinated by bats and bushbabies. The resulting fruits – large woody capsules – contain seeds that are eaten by wild and domestic grazers alike, while the white, cream of tartar like pulp that surrounds them is a good source of vitamin C and used in juices and beer-making.
One of my best African treasures is a Kenyan kiondo bag made in the traditional way from baobab fibre. These days the baskets are more commonly woven from sisal cord. Either way you can see how they are made at an earlier post HERE.