Adansonia digitata (baobab) is the most widespread of the Adansonia species, and is native to the African continent. The long-lived pachycauls are typically found in dry, hot savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, where they dominate the landscape, and reveal the presence of a watercourse from afar. Their growth rate is determined by ground water or rainfall, and their maximum age, which is subject to much conjecture, seems to be in the order of 1,500 years. They have traditionally been valued as sources of food, water, health remedies or places of shelter and are steeped in legend and superstition. European explorers of old were inclined to carve their names on baobabs, and many are defaced by modern graffiti. Common names for the baobab include dead-rat tree (from the appearance of the fruit), monkey-bread tree (the soft, dry fruit is edible), upside-down tree (the sparse branches resemble roots) and cream of tartar tree (cream of tartar).The vernacular name « baobab » is derived from Arabic بو حِباب (būħibāb), which means « father of many seeds ». The scientific name Adansonia refers to the French explorer and botanist, Michel Adanson (1727–1806), who observed a specimen in 1749 on the island of Sor, Senegal. On the nearby Îles des Madeleines Adanson found another baobab, 3.8 m in diameter, which bore the carvings of passing mariners on its trunk, including those of Henry the Navigator in 1444 and André Thevet in 1555. When Théodore Monod searched the island in the 20th century, the tree was not to be found however. Adanson concluded that the baobab, of all the trees he studied, “is probably the most useful tree in all.” He consumed baobab juice twice a day, while in Africa. He remained convinced that it maintained his health for him. « Digitata » refers to the digits of the hand. The baobab’s compound leaves with normally five (but up to seven) leaflets are akin to a hand.
The trees usually grow as solitary individuals, and are large and distinctive elements of savannah or scrubland vegetation. Some large individuals live to well over a thousand years of age. All baobab trees are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry season, and remains leafless for nine months of the year.
They can grow to between 5–25 m (16–82 ft) in height. They are in fact known both for their height and trunk’s girth. The trunk tends to be bottle-shaped and can reach a diameter of 10–14 m (33–46 ft). The span of the roots actually exceed the tree’s height, a factor that enables it to survive in a dry climate. Many consider the tree to be “upside-down” due to the trunk likeness to a taproot and the branches akin to finer capillary roots. The trunk is smooth and shiny and can range from being reddish brown to grey. The bark can feel cork-like. The branches are thick and wide and very stout compared to the trunk.
During the early summer (October to December in southern hemisphere) the tree bears very large, heavy, white flowers. These are 12 cm (4.7 in) across and open during the late afternoon to stay open for one night. The pendulous, showy flowers have a very large number of stamens. They have a sweet scent but later emit a carrion smell, especially when they turn brown and fall after 24 hours. Researchers have shown that they appear to be primarily pollinated by fruit bats of the subfamily Pteropodinae. The flowers have 5 petals that are leathery and hairy on the inside. The sepals are cup-shaped and 5-cleft. The stamens are divided into multiple anthers and styles are 7-10 rayed.
The indehiscent fruit are large, egg-shaped capsules. They are filled with pulp that dries, hardens, and falls to pieces which look like chunks of powdery, dry bread. The seed are hard, black and kidney-shaped.
The northern limit of its distribution in Africa is associated with rainfall patterns; only on the Atlantic coast and in the Sudan does its occurrence venture naturally into the Sahel. On the Atlantic coast, this may be due to spreading after cultivation. Its occurrence is very limited in Central Africa, and it is found only in the very north of Southern Africa. In Eastern Africa, the trees grow also in shrublands and on the coast. In Angola and Namibia, the baobabs grow in woodlands, and in coastal regions, in addition to savannahs. It is also found in Dhofar region of Oman and Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, Western Asia. This tree is also found in India, particularly in the dry regions of the country, and in Penang, Malaysia, along certain streets.
The baobab is native to most of Africa, especially in drier, less tropical climates. It is not found in areas where sand is deep. It is sensitive to water logging and frost. More specifically: Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, n-Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Congo, DR Congo (Zaire), Eritrea, Ethiopia, s-Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, Sao Tome, Príncipe isl., Annobon isl., Java (introduced), Nepal (introduced), Sri Lanka (introduced), Philippines (introduced), Jamaica (introduced), South Africa (Transvaal), Namibia, Botswana, Puerto Rico (introduced), Haiti (introduced), Dominican Republic (introduced), Venezuela (introduced), Seychelles (introduced), Madagascar (introduced), Comores (introduced), India (introduced), sw-Yemen, Oman (Dhofar), China (introduced), Guangdong (introduced), Fujian (introduced), Yunnan (introduced).
The baobab is a traditional food plant in Africa, but is little-known elsewhere. The vegetable has been suggested to have the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development, and support sustainable land care.
The African baobab’s fruit is 15–20 cm (6–8 in) long. It contains 50% more calcium than spinach, is high in antioxidants, and has three times the vitamin C of an orange.[unreliable source?] The dry pulp is either eaten fresh or dissolved in milk or water to make a drink. The leaves can be eaten as relish. Young fresh leaves are cooked in a sauce and sometimes are dried and powdered. The powder is called lalo in Mali and sold in many village markets in Western Africa. Oil extracted by pounding the seeds can be used for cooking but this is not widespread. In Sudan — where the tree is called tebeldi — people make tabaldi juice by soaking and dissolving the dry pulp of the fruit, locally known as gunguleiz.
In 2008, the European Union approved the use and consumption of baobab fruit as an ingredient in smoothies and cereal bars. The United States Food and Drug Administration granted generally recognized as safe status to baobab dried fruit pulp as a food ingredient in 2009.
Baobab leaves are sometimes used as forage for ruminants in dry season. The oilmeal, which is a byproduct of oil extraction, can also be used as animal feed. In times of drought elephants consume the juicy wood below its bark.