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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
Yet beyond the charms this tree conjures in people’s minds lies a beguiling reality. Of all nature’s living entities this is one of the most fascinating. For one thing, it may be exceptionally long lived, with some individuals claimed to be over 1,000 years old.1 It is also among the biggest and bulkiest of all living organisms, having a trunk sometimes half as broad as it is high.2 This squat stalk, its smooth surface pocked and slit as if stigmatized, is often hollow. Some monstrous specimens actually enclose a trunk space bigger than that found inside a small house. In dry areas they are commonly co-opted as village cisterns. A single bulbous stem has been known to store as much as 10,000 liters of fresh clean water. No wonder another name for baobab is bottle tree.
It is also one of the most useful living entities. On a practical level, the Africans’ veneration arises because the baobab is vital to life. The bark fuels cooking stoves, pottery kilns, and baking ovens. The flexible fiber found in the layer immediately beneath the bark provides cord and coarse fabrics. The fruits are eaten with food or stirred into drinks, and provide exceptional quantities of vitamin C and other nutrients. The seeds are roasted and made into a sort of creamy butter.
The living trees are useful in their own right—not only providing shade but often providing the only splendor in an otherwise sere landscape. They also constitute handy landmarks for travelers,3 gathering points for villagers, and silent witnesses to long abandoned villages. Nothing grows around the base, a feature emphasizing the profile, not to mention the self-sufficiency, solitude, and apparent strength of this surprising species.
In a separate volume we detail baobab fruit as well as most otherproducts from the tree. Here we focus on the leaves and their uses.
Baobab leaf is a staple of many populations in the savanna lands just beneath the Sahara. In most places between the westernmost tip of Senegal and Lake Chad half a continent to the east this leaf vegetable is among the most common of foods. Bursting into foliage a little before the rains begin, the trees remain green until a little after the rains have ceased. In a food class renowned for transitory availability, baobab is thus a leafy vegetable that yields through a very long season.
Although the trunk forms growth rings, they are laid down irregularly, so a baobab’s age is difficult to determine by this means. Carbon dating has put the ages of some specimens at 2,000 years, and there are claims that others have seen six millennia pass.
Specimens 18 m tall with trunks 9 m across have been measured. They often form classic looking half-arches reminiscent of the flying buttresses on European cathedrals.
They provide landmarks even for mapmakers—indicating locations on map sheets in otherwise featureless landscape. Large baobabs are, for instance, indicated on 1:200,000 map sheets in Mali.