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.
A typical common name is baobab. Other common names include boab, boaboa, bottle tree, upside-down tree, and monkey bread tree. The generic name honours Michel Adanson, the French naturalist and explorer who described A. digitata.
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. Diameter of this tree is 10.64 m, approximate circumference – 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.
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.
The fruit is nutritious, possibly having more vitamin C than oranges, and exceeding the calcium content of cow’s milk. The dry fruit pulp separated from seeds and fibers is eaten directly or mixed into porridge or milk, and is also known as “sour gourd” or “monkey’s bread”. In Malawi, the fruit pulp is used to make a nutrient-rich juice. In Zimbabwe, the fruit is known as mawuyu in the Shona language and has long been a traditional fruit.
The fruit can be used to produce cream of tartar. In various parts of East Africa, the dry fruit pulp is covered in sugary coating (usually with red coloring) and sold in packages as a sweet and sour candy called “umbuyu”.
The seeds are mostly used as a thickener for soups, but may also be fermented into a seasoning, roasted for direct consumption, or pounded to extract vegetable oil. The tree also provides a source of fiber, dye, and fuel.
The dry pulp is either eaten fresh or used to add to gruels on cooling after cooking – a good way of preserving the vitamin contents. It can also be ground to make a refreshing drink with a pleasing wine-gum flavour. In Tanzania, it is added to aid fermentation of sugar cane for beer making.
Pulp can be stored for fairly long periods for use in soft drink production, but it needs airtight containers. Storage is improved by the use of sodium metabisulphite (Ibiyemi et al., 1988). It can also be frozen if ground to a powder.