Across much of Africa the baobab (Adansonia digitata) is a common sight. Wherever it grows people rely on it for food. Some count this tree’s leaves among their most valued vegetables. Others consider its fruits the finer food. And all rely on baobab seed for sustenance during famine times.

This strange tree also provides drink. At the height of the rainy season, villagers commonly prize open a hole in the bark and fill the hollow interior with water (usually from a ditch dug at its base). During the subsequent dry months that tank-in-a-trunk becomes so valuable it is sometimes guarded day and night against parched passersby.1

Food and drink are just two of the baobab’s blessings. Others include shade, medicines, rope, and various raw materials that make everyday living possible. All in all, it can be said, and with a large measure of truth, that baobab is Africa’s Tree of Life.

Probably the most distinctive plant of them all, baobab is unforgettable. The trunk often appears so grotesquely swollen as to suggest a giant brandy bottle. The crooked branches, affixed to the “cork,” look like squirming roots shooting skywards. That image is so immediately apparent that baobab is often called the “upside-down tree.”

Few plants engender so much respect. Millions believe each tree receives divine power through those “roots” reaching toward heaven. Out of both regard and gratitude people maintain baobab near their houses. Indeed, baobab often seems like some vegetative pet that moves in wherever it finds a friendly family (which in a way it does—sprouting from seeds thrown out in household food wastes). Most baobab trees are individually owned or at least individually claimed for a season2 and many are passed down the generations like some valuable piece of property. A baobab commonly becomes part of the family, and its death proves as painful as that of a beloved friend.


On the other hand, in Mali and Burkina Faso it is common to see large clay jugs (canaries) carefully placed in the hollow of a baobab tree and kept full of water for the use of thirsty travelers.


Many are claimed by “squatters” who—partly to increase productivity, but mainly to secure their claim to the tree for the coming season—are the first to prune back branches.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement