The baobab tree that grows mostly in South Africa is a strange tree for several reasons: It often looks as though it is growing upside down, it sprouts leaves in cold weather and sheds them in warm weather, and it produces a big white flower that blooms but a short time and is pollinated by bats instead of bees. Because of this tree’s unusual shape and habits, some people will not go near it at night, believing that it is the home of evil spirits.
It is easy to see how superstitious tales got started. The baobab is a grotesque tree. With its big, bloated branches that look like stumpy arms, and sprouting leaves that resemble reaching fingers, it looks like a giant goblin.
No two baobab trees are alike in shape, but all are fat and measure up to 50 feet (15 m) in diameter and up to 60 feet (18 m) in height. A gigantic baobab tree called Big Tree, growing near Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, is 146 feet (45 m) tall and 66 feet (20 m) thick!
This odd tree is also called the monkey-bread tree because monkeys favor it as a food source, and the vegetable elephant because as the tree ages, its bark becomes wrinkled and resembles an elephant’s hide.
Although some believe that baobab trees harbor evil spirits, these trees provide many good and useful things: food from its fruit and seeds, medicines from its bark and leaves, rope or coarse cloth from its gray bark. In addition, the baobab can be used for canoes, fuel, soap, and plaster for mud-hut walls.
Probably the best thing about this long-lived tree is that it is a lifesaver. Like the cactus plant, it stores moisture. During long, dry spells, a farmer may cut down a baobab tree so that his thirsty cattle can eat its soggy bark. Elephants, too, rip off sheets of its bark to appease their thirst when no other water is available. And humans have been saved from dying of thirst by wringing water out of a piece of baobab bark.
Some baobabs have large hollows in them, and animals such as snakes, owls, bats, squirrels, and lemurs make their homes there. Bees gather nectar and store their sweet treasure in baobab hollows. One baobab has an opening 12 feet (4 m) wide and nearly 12 feet (4 m) high. People can take shelter there during a storm or at night. Baobab trees also grow in Australia, and during pioneer days in that country one of these bottle-shaped trees served as a jail!
The baobab may be ugly and sometimes appear frightening, but it is a good friend to man and animal alike. And just as you shouldn’t judge people by how they look, neither should you judge the baobab—or anything else in nature—by your first impression of it.