Baobab – The king of trees

The baobab powder, extracted from the Baobab, the king of trees

Everyone will agree that the baobab is a special tree with its massive trunk, unique shape – which according to legend is the result of God planting it upside down – and its powerful presence.

This king of trees seems to hold aeons of life-experience like a wizened old elephant matriarch or like a tall rugged mountain. It is one of nature’s cathedrals, offering shelter, food and relief from sickness. It is no wonder that this gargantuan deciduous tree holds a place in our hearts and has inspired myths and superstition.

It’s the stuff of legends – living to hundreds of years old; its hollow interior having served as a chapel, water reservoir, shop and place of refuge; its fibrous bark collapsing to the ground at the end of its life cycle; and its delicate and pendulous white flowers, centred with a soft brush of bright yellow pollen, blooming for only 24 hours before falling like confetti at a wedding. There are eight species of baobab: an African, six Madagascan and one Australian species.

Baobab - The king of trees
Baobab – The king of trees

The African baobab Andansonia digitata or Kremetartboom at it’s known in Afrikaans, occurs at low altitudes in hot, dry woodland in the continent’s more tropical regions, in well-drained stony soil. It has compound finger-like leaves composed in spirals of 5-7 leafl ets at the ends of single long stalks. Its greyish-brown unevenlyfolded trunk can be more than 20m in circumference although it is often not more than 15m high.

Waxy white flowers appear in spring or early summer. The buds start to open in the late afternoon, the flowers opening completely at sunset to be pollinated at night by fruit bats and several species of bushbaby. By the next afternoon they have wilted and fallen to the ground. The oval fruit has a hard woody shell and contains a powdery white pulp, rich in vitamin C and likened to cream of tartar. A drink made with the pulp has been used to treat fevers and diarrhoea and the powdered seeds are said to cure children’s hiccups.

The seeds are dispersed by large mammals like primates and elephants. Some of the superstitions surrounding the baobab include the belief that if you pick a baobab flower, you will be devoured by a lion as the blossoms are inhabited by spirits, that the water the seeds have been soaked in will act as protection against an attack by a crocodile (although sucking and eating the seeds will attract a crocodile), an infusion of the bark will make a man strong and that a baby boy should be washed in water in which the bark has been soaked. The great tree has a patchy distribution in the northern areas of the country.

Amongst Namibia’s better- known baobabs are those that cling tenaciously to the rocky edges of Epupa Falls, the impressive Holboom in the Nyae Nyae conservancy, the Dorslandboom on the way to Khaudum Game Reserve where the Dorsland trekkers are said to have camped in the late 1800s, ‘Tree 1063’ on Keibeb farm near Grootfontein and the Ombalantu baobab in Outapi.

The Ombalantu baobab is a heritage site with a long history. The hundreds-of-year old omukwa or baobab was once a place of refuge for the Ombalantu people who climbed into its centre and hid between its fibrous walls during tribal wars and cattle skirmishes. It was later used as a post-office and finally a chapel.

A lectern with a bible and several benches remain in the baobab’s centre and visitors to the Ombalantu Baobab Tree Campsite are welcome to sit in the living chapel. Baobabs demand reverence by virtue of their sheer size and age. They tower into the sky, crowned by birds’ nests and a fringe of green leaves or they stand stark and imposing on the arid land. Whatever the season, the king of trees cannot be ignored.


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