The African Baobab tree is older than human life. The trees have been around for millions of years, according to plant scientists, and regularly now grow to be from 1200—6000 years old per tree. They are the world’s oldest and largest trees. They routinely grow in Southern Africa (i.e., Madagascar, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa, East Africa, Ghana and in Saudi Arabia and Australia). They have a unique portraiture. The gnarled, wrinkled-looking limbs look like roots, so the trees look upside down. They can grow to be gigantic—sometimes towering beyond 100 feet, with a very wide girth. At times, people have even been known to hollow out the part closer to the earth, and live in the trees. A famous South African landmark until recently, the Sunland bar, was built within a hollowed-out section of the Platland baobab tree trunk.
Publicly, the trees were last seen in the movies “Avatar” (Tree of Souls), Disney’s “The Lion King” (Rafiki, the monkey’s, tree) and “Black Panther” (the very tall trees in the dream sequences, not the flat-headed and distinctive acacia trees). In Africa, the trees are most often called The Tree of Life, since they provide food, water, shelter, and other nutrients to both humans and animals. The trees are revered as sacred cultural possessions by both African governments and ordinary citizens.
The fruit from the baobab has recently been “discovered” by Westerners as a ‘superfood.’ Sometimes called ‘monkey bread,’ the fruit from the baobab tree is very rich in vitamin C, calcium and fiber. The fruit contains the highest anti-oxidant content of any fruit known on earth. An African manufacturer, Aduna Foods, is currently the biggest developer of this product thus far, and African women farmers do very well in association with the company. Since ownership of baobab trees throughout Africa is a distinct right of women, collecting and selling the fruit has become a very profitable enterprise, especially during the long dry season when nothing much else grows. The baobabs seem to thrive in arid conditions.
In Africa, when everything else seemed to be falling apart or being taken away, the baobab has always been there.
Lately, however, based on scientific findings the last six years, the baobabs may be dying. Eight of the thirteen oldest and largest baobabs in Africa have either died or are dying currently, with limbs crashing to the ground and the oldest sections of complicated root systems disintegrating. It would, according to most scientists, be a catastrophic loss for the planet if the baobabs become extinct. It would also be another major black mark against human intervention. The baobabs—some of the world’s oldest living things– regularly survive fire, floods, windstorms, termites and other calamities, but may not survive man.
It is not yet known why the baobabs are dying in unprecedented numbers. The latest analysis is that rapid climate change may be the culprit—that even though the trees flourish in very wet and dry and cold conditions, southern Africa, where most of the dying trees seem to be located, is becoming extremely hot and drought-prone these days. It is believed that the baobabs have not been able to adapt to that kind of severe weather change.
While not a plant scientist, this writer believes that like Africans in general, the baobabs, which have been here before us and live on in spite of us, will find a way. Africa and its baobabs will adjust, adapt and grow on as long as the planet is here.
The trees are us, and we are the trees. We will survive.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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