Commonly known as the ‘baobab’ tree, the incredibly tall and phenomenally impressive adansonia is a genus of eight species of tree, six native to Madagascar, one native to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and one to Australia. The mainland African species also occurs on Madagascar, but it is not a native of that island.
Adansonias reach heights of 5 to 30 metres (16 to 98 ft) and have trunk diameters of 7 to 11 metres (23 to 36 ft). Glencoe baobab – an African baobab specimen in Limpopo Province, South Africa, often considered the largest example alive – up to recent times had a circumference of 47 metres (154 ft).
Its diameter is estimated at about 15.9 metres (52 ft). Recently the tree split up into two parts and it is possible that the stoutest tree now is Sunland baobab, also in South Africa. The diameter of this tree is 10.64 m, with an approximate circumference of 33.4 metres.
Some baobabs are reputed to be many thousands of years old, which is difficult to verify, as the wood does not produce annual growth rings, though radiocarbon dating may be able to provide age data.
Baobabs store water inside the swollen trunk (up to 120,000 litres / 32,000 US gallons) to endure the harsh drought conditions particular to each region. All occur in seasonally arid areas, and are deciduous, shedding their leaves during the dry season.
The leaves are commonly used as a leaf vegetable throughout the area of mainland African distribution, including Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the Sahel. They are eaten both fresh and as a dry powder. In Northern Nigeria, the leaves are locally known as kuka(Hausa), and are used to make Kuka soup(Miyan kuka).
The fruit has a velvety shell and is about the size of a coconut, weighing about 1.44 kilograms (3.2 lb). It has an acidic, tart flavor, described as ‘somewhere between grapefruit, pear, and vanilla’.
The dried fruit powder contains about 12% water and various nutrients, including carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, potassium and iron.
In Zimbabwe, the fruit is known as mawuyu in the Shona language and has long been a traditional fruit. According to one source, locals “ate the fruit fresh or crushed the crumbly pulp to stir into porridge and drinks”. Malawi women have already set up commercial ventures earning their children’s school fees for their harvesting work.