The Baobab Tree

An overview of the Boabab tree, its natural history, uses and legends of the unique trees native to Madagascar and Northern Australia.

Boabs are fat-trunked trees that are native only to Madagascar and North-Western Australia. They have been known to attain girths of almost 30m, with a diameter of about 9-10m. It is thought that boabs live up to 2,000 - 6,000 years.

Australian Boabs

In the North Australian 'Wet Season', the boab has a dense coverage of bright green leaves. In the 'Dry' season (winter) the Boab drops all its leaves, and looks a like a tree that has been planted with its roots in the air.

Australian Aboriginal legends reflect this: The Boab was once a graceful, proud tree that delighted in boasting about its beauty to the other not-so-graceful plants that inhabited the same area. They complained, and God made it so that the seeds of the boab sprouted upside down - so the roots grew upwards, and the branches down into the earth.

Similarly, an Arabian legend says of the Madagascan boabs (known as Baobabs), ""¦ the devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth, and left its roots in the air." (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

It has been speculated that the Australian Boabs may have originated from seed pods carried for food by seafarers from Madagascar or Africa.

Towards the beginning of the 'Wet Season', the Boab begins to flower. Large white to cream, waxy, sweet-scented, 'candle-like' flowers cover the tree. These are pollinated at night time by large moths. The flowers develop into large oval or roundish seed pods.

Unusual

One particularly unusual trait of the Boab is it's 'portability'. These hardy trees can be successfully transplanted with no special care taken. When roads in the Shire of Wyndham-East Kimberley were widened several years ago, the boabs were plucked from the ground, transported dozens of kilometres laying on the bed of a truck, then deposited on the ground at the Wyndham Port where they lay for several weeks. They were then re-planted at the Port and continue to thrive, looking as though they have always been there.

Bounteous Tree

The Boab has been a bounteous tree to the Aboriginal people. Almost every part of the tree is used in one way or another.

The seed pods have a woody casing with a velvety covering that is scraped off to create artwork on the pod. The seed kernels are eaten raw or roasted, and are a highly nutritious food source.



Leaves and roots are used for medicinal purposes, primarily gastric and chest complaints. The Boab's bark is used to make string, rope and twine, and the gum of the tree can be used as glue.

The trunk stores water, and it has been estimated that up to 120,000 litres of water may be stored by one tree.

Additionally, Boabs can be used for shelter, as they develop hollow trunks. A hole is carved in the trunk to form a door, the soft pulp removed and a fire lit inside to dry out the hollow. The bark grows around the cut and over the internal surface of the tree, which is unharmed by the excavation.

In the early Kimberley pioneering days, Boabs were often temporarily used in this way to contain prisoners. Grates were fitted to the openings, the prisoners put inside and the grate locked.

Twenty kilometres from Wyndham is the Prison Tree, which still bears bolts and studs from its service as a prison. There is also a Prison Tree near Derby, 900km away. It is likely there were others throughout the Kimberley region.

Madagascan Baobabs

In Madagascar and Africa the Baobabs are similarly used in regards to food, resources and medicinal uses, but they also feature largely in fertility rites and ancestor respect rituals. In Senegal they are sometimes used to contain the remains of Griots - guardians of community heritage, similar to Tribal Elders in Australian Aboriginal society.

A sacred Baobab in the village of Toumbou-Ba contains an altar of sorts. The Baobab has a long and intricate history, and is regarded as a protector. A famous ancestor is buried under the tree, and it is considered to be a refuge. A person under or inside the tree cannot be hit or abused by others.

This sacred Baobab is also to be considered an aid to fertility. Infertile women place their hands on the tree and promise to either offer sacrifice, or the naming of their child after the tree in return for fertility. Breaking the promise results in the death of the child.

Domestic Cultivation

The Boab or Baobab grows very easily from seed, and is prized in bonsai circles. If kept in pots, they must not be watered once they enter their dormant state each year, or the excess moisture destroys their roots. They can in fact be removed from the pot, the roots shaken free of soil and the tree stored until they begin to come out of dormancy, when they are repotted.

They need a warm environment, being very cold intolerant, and in many parts of the world will need to be cultivated as indoor plants.

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