BAOBAB (Adansonia digitata)

A remarkable tree, remarkable enough for Kenyans to say that the devil planted it upside down. But Shona-speaking people of southern Africa revered it, and one of them was often adopted as their land shrine, while it would usually mark a Yoruba sacred site.

Baobabs are extremely useful trees. Rope, strong enough to give rise to the Swahili saying that translates: “secure as an elephant bound with baobab rope”, is made from the bark, as well as all sorts of plaited cordage. Nets and sacks are made from it, too, and in parts of West Africa, it is woven into a coarse material for clothing.

The wood makes a strong paper, and a red dye is obtainable from it. Even the pollen is useful, for it can make a good glue. The inside of the tree is pulpy, and it is often hollowed out for water storage, though it flourishes in the Kalahari Desert, and as much as a thousand gallons of water can be tapped naturally from the tree. The young leaves can be cooked as a potherb, and the dry leaves can be used either as a medicine or to thicken stews. In Sierra Leone, the leaf is used as a prophylactic against malaria. The Bushmen in particular value the seed as a winter food. The pods, which can be up to a foot long, and look like sausages, fall to the ground when ripe, and are collected daily. And so on — every part of the tree has a use, it seems. Perhaps the strangest thing about this tree is the way that the trunks of old specimens can be hollowed out, and then used, not only to hold water, but also for dry storage of materials. They have even been put to use in storing a corpse, presumably indefinitely, for mummification has been practiced in these cases. Perhaps that is why witches are said to meet in baobab (and iroko) trees.