The baobab: The strangest tree on Earth
Baobab trees are wonderful, bizarre trees with a strange name. Baobabs, all in the genus Adansonia, are indigenous to Madagascar (six species), mainland Africa and the Arabian peninsula (two), and northwest Australia (one).1 From a distance, although they have many traits in common, the shapes of the nine known species look rather different (figs. 1 to 3).2 Some are very tall and comparatively thin, others are short and fat.
Baobabs feature consistently in online lists of the world’s most incredible / inspiring / magnificent / amazing trees.3 They are among Earth’s longest-lived flowering plants, and under normal conditions can grow for over 1,000 years. One baobab was estimated to have lived for 2,600 years. They grow to over 22 metres (75 feet) tall, with a trunk circumference that can exceed 26 m (85 ft).4
Madagascar’s Adansonia grandidieri (fig. 1) is probably the iconic image of a baobab. Its tall, stout, strong trunk is topped with what looks like a broad cowboy hat. Viewing one close-up is an awe-inspiring experience. They are often called the upside-down tree, because they look like they were yanked from the ground and shoved back into it ‘head-first’, with roots in the air.5 Some have suggested they demonstrate that God has a sense of humour!
Surviving drought conditions
Baobabs thrive in very dry climates that would kill most trees, not to mention most other plants. To conserve water, they produce leaves only during a short two-to-six-week wet period. Their enormous root system helps them to absorb copious amounts of water during wet seasons. The spongy centres of the mature trees contain many diffuse small spaces that become filled during the rainy season, serving as water reserves for the tree.
One reason baobabs thrive in dry environments is that such reserves in an individual tree can contain as much as 120,000 litres (32,000 US gallons) of water. Although the average baobab tree holds significantly less, it still contains an enormous amount of water. However, this water is diffusely distributed within its tissues.
Correcting a misconception
There are rare instances where people have hollowed out part of the trunk to store rainwater.6 But the common notion that baobabs store their water within a large hollow ‘water barrel’, which can be tapped by thirsty travellers, is mistaken. The myth is probably sustained by the fact that older trees are frequently naturally hollow. The cavities, often accessible from the outside, can be large enough to shelter many people (see The Boab Prison Tree). In African baobabs at least, the hollows can be the natural empty space created when separate stems growing in a ring-shaped arrangement fuse together. (Young trees are usually single-stemmed, but “produce new stems from roots or fallen stems …which grow and fuse with the older ones”.7)
Nonetheless, by tearing off portions of bark to access the moist, succulent tissue beneath, the San people of southern Africa, as well as elephants, have often obtained lifegiving moisture in times of drought. And rainwater does collect in the clefts of the large branches. This can serve as an important water source for local people, who may cut little extra hollows to trap even more water. They are thus a symbol of life in landscapes where little else can flourish.
Their shiny bark reflects sunlight, helping keep the trees cool during hot summers.
Baobabs provide humans with not only water, but also shelter, wood, clothing, and food. The fruit, seeds, and flowers (figs. 4 to 6) are edible. Their glossy, moisture-hoarding leaves each consist of several 15 cm-long (6 in) leaflets. These leaves are used to make soups, condiments, and are used as medicine to treat fevers.
Rich in vitamin C, the leaves taste like a mixture of grapefruit, pear, and vanilla. The fire-resistant cork-like bark is used for making cloth and rope. It’s no wonder locals often call them ‘the tree of life’.
Why then is such a useful tree not cultivated? Few farmers bother planting them because it takes 8–23 years for them to flower from seed—there are no known commercial plantations in Africa.
However, researchers in Ghana have worked out a way to make them flower in as little as 27 months.8 They achieved this by grafting shoots from an adult (fruiting) baobab tree onto young seedlings. This development should encourage the commercial cultivation of the tree.
Like other trees, baobabs reproduce by seeds, which have a unique design. The fuzz-covered 15–25 cm-long (6–10 inches) hanging fruit resembles dead rodents strung up by their tails. This inspired another common name: ‘dead rat tree’. The seeds contain the water, minerals, vitamins, and food the embryo needs to sprout until it develops roots and leaves to supply its own nourishment.9
The strong, velvety, baobab seedpod shell protects it from the impact of its fall from great heights. The trees often produce over 200 fruit per season, each pod containing up to 300 seeds. Thus it is common for trees to drop thousands of seeds, most of which do not go on to produce another tree.
This fact was one reason Charles Darwin, in an aside clearly aimed at the idea of a wise and benevolent Creator, referred to the “works” of nature as “wasteful”.10 This opinion would not likely be shared by the many mammals, such as squirrels, which live off the baobab’s bountiful seed supply.
Baobabs produce the largest flowers of any tree. Their strange-looking flowers (fig. 6) reach 15 cm (6 in) in diameter, dangle on long stalks, and open only at night. Each flower lasts only ~24 hours, but only a few open at a time. This encourages their pollinators—mainly hawk moths and/or fruit bats—to move from tree to tree, promoting cross-fertilization.
The origin of baobabs
According to Bible history, God created trees on Day 3 of Creation Week. This would have included the ancestor to the several species of baobab that we have today. God created the various kinds of organisms with the capacity to adapt to different environments. This can involve the formation of multiple species from each created kind. The famous creationist scientist Linnaeus (1707–1778) recognized this a long time before Darwin, who hijacked the concept of speciation to sell evolution.11 Incidentally, Linnaeus gave baobabs the genus name of Adansonia in honour of the French botanist Michel Adanson.
After the Flood, vegetation regrew on Earth from floating seedpods or vegetation rafts that survived the Flood. Of the nine species of Adansonia, six are found in Madagascar, so it seems that Madagascar was the post-Flood site of regeneration. The two species in Africa (A. digitata and A. kilima) and the one in the Kimberley region of Australia (A. gregorii) probably derived from those in Madagascar.
Secular researchers have used DNA comparisons and plant characteristics to infer that the hawk-moth–pollinated species in Madagascar came first.12 These have red or yellow flowers, compared to the white flowered types that fruit bats prefer. Such changes in flower colour are clearly within the divinely designed adaptability of baobabs. And mutations could destroy the genetic information for making red or yellow pigments (mutations readily ‘break’ things, but not create them).13 Such changes are ‘downhill’, but microbes-to-man evolution needs ‘uphill’ changes (addition of new organs/features).
How did the baobab get from Madagascar to Africa and Australia? In the past, evolutionists regarded baobabs as ‘primitive’. They said this because large flowers were thought of as primitive (characteristic of the alleged ancient ancestors of ‘modern’ plants). Thus, they had baobabs ‘evolving’ before the supercontinent Gondwana broke up, said to be 180 million years ago, and distributed them. A neat story, but the fashion now has it that small flowers were ancestral, so baobabs are no longer ‘primitive’ and the story no longer works. But the close similarity of the Australian and African species also rules out such a long period of separation, even with the evolutionary assumption of slow mutation rates.
But there is still debate. One authority, David Baum from the University of Wisconsin, says that the African and Australian species separated “at least a few million years ago and maybe more than 10 million”.14 Jack Pettigrew from the University of Queensland disputes this, proposing ~70,000 years. That’s quite a difference! Baum’s dating puts the baobab well before humans in the evolutionary world, so his only option is that its seed-containing pods floated to Africa and Australia. Pettigrew’s dating puts the species in the evolutionary timeframe for humans to transfer seeds. The dispute comes from disagreement over mutation rates, but both camps are using the evolutionary assumption of deep time (these are not generation-by-generation measured mutation rates). The disagreement highlights the conjectural nature of such evolutionary ‘dating’. Measured mutation rates consistently put species’ origins within a biblical timeframe.15 Furthermore, the flexibility of the stories reflects the lack of fossil evidence for the origin of baobabs that would constrain the scenarios. There is even a controversial proposal that Africans came by sea to the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia with baobab seeds, and these people created the famous Bradshaw rock art (which is quite different to aboriginal artwork elsewhere in Australia).16 However, the claimed longevity of this artwork (~60,000 years) also casts doubt on the evolutionary dating.
From a biblical history perspective, both transfer mechanisms are possibilities, only that humans would have carried seeds after the Flood, which was about 4,500 years ago.
Interestingly, the African A. digitata is tetraploid (double the normal number of chromosomes), whereas A. kilima is normal (diploid).17 Tetraploid plants have larger cells, larger flowers, fruits, etc. (like the cultivated strawberries we eat today). Digitata probably derived from kilima (doubling of chromosomes is common in plants). Otherwise, the two are genetically very similar. The diploid Australian species probably came from A. kilima.
God created the baobab tree type during Day 3 of Creation Week. All the species existing today descended from these original trees, by diversification before and/or following the global Flood. Baobab seeds would have been able to survive the Flood through the pods floating, either singly, or within rafts of torn-off vegetation. These magnificent, useful trees stand as a powerful testimony to the Creator’s handiwork.
The baobab prison tree
Adansonia gregorii is the only species of baobab in Australia, where it is also known as the boabab, boab, or bottle tree. Pictured here is the famous Boab Prison Tree, near Derby in the Kimberley region in Western Australia’s north. The hollow interior is visible through a comparatively narrow slit. Stories of this tree being used for prisoner storage (it was also known as ‘The Hillgrove Lockup’) are likely myth. The local indigenous people already regarded it as a significant landmark before European settlement, calling it Kunumudj. Early 20th century reports suggest they had been using it as a dry hut, and possibly an ossuary for the dead. The tree is thought to be some 1,500 years old, and has a circumference over 14 metres (46 ft).
References and notes
- Species names are given in britannica.com/plant/baobab-tree-genus. Return to text.
- Baum, D., Small, R., and Wendel, J., Biogeography and floral evolution of baobabs (Adansonia, Bombacaceae) as inferred from multiple data sets, Syst. Biol. 47(2):181–207, 1998. Return to text.
- E.g. mysteriousfacts.com, urnabios.com, toptenz.net, etc. Return to text.
- Reynolds, C., Baobab tree evolved to survive, The Ledger, 7 Aug 2009, theledger.com. Wikipedia claims some grow up to 30 m (100 ft) tall. Return to text.
- Jasper, L. and Petignat, A., Baobabs of the World: The upside-down trees of Madagascar, Africa and Australia, Penguin Random House South Africa, 2016. Return to text.
- Ackerley, B., Tree of life: Giant baobab turned into living water tank in Madagascar, newscientist.com, 13 Nov 2019. Return to text.
- Zielinski, S., Huge, hollow baobab trees are actually multiple fused stems,sciencenews.org, 4 Feb 2015. Return to text.
- Le Page, M., Efforts to domesticate African baobab trees are bearing fruit, New Scientist 251(3350):11, 4 Sep 2021. Return to text.
- Wickens, G., The baobab: Africa’s upside-down tree, Kew Bulletin 37(2):173–209, 1982. Return to text.
- Darwin, C, letter to J.D. Hooker, 13 July 1856. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Carl Linnaeus: the scientist who saw evidence for God in everything in nature, Creation 37(4):52–55, 2015. Return to text.
- Pettigrew, J., and 7 others, Morphology, ploidy and molecular phylogenetics reveal a new diploid species from Africa in the baobab genus Adansonia (Malvaceae: Bombacoideae), Taxon 61(6):1240–1250, 2012, uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/Kilima.pdf (see fig. 1). Return to text.
- For an example, see Catchpoole, D., Morning Glory’s Designer Label clothing, Creation 29(1):49–51, 2006; creation.com/morning-glory. Return to text.
- Collins, B., Curious Kimberley: Scientists disagree how boab trees got to Australia from Africa and Madagascar, abc.net.au, 7 Aug 2018. Return to text.
- Tomkins, J., Empirical genetic clocks give biblical timelines, J. Creation 29(2):3–5; creation.com/empirical-clocks. Return to text.
- Vickers, C., and Pettigrew, J., Origins of the Australian Boab (Adansonia gregorii), uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/BoabOrigins.html (undated; accessed 6 Jan 2022). Return to text.
- Pettigrew et al., Ref. 12. Return to text.