Note: For more photos see this subsequent post on A. digitata.
The Baobab appears to be a somewhat disproportional tree, with a massive trunk and gnarled, twisting branches.
The fruit grow to around 25 cm long, with a hard oval shell and longitudinal grooves, like a football. The pod is packed with seeds embedded in an edible cream or white pulp.
The cream can be eaten raw, or alternatively dissolved in water and stirred into a milky paste, served as a drink. Coconut juice is commonly added. The seeds can be sifted off and roasted like groundnuts.
In times of famine the soft tuber-like root tips are cooked and eaten. Germinating seed roots are also eaten, and young leaves are used as a vegetable, often mixed with cassava leaves.
The pulp covered seeds are coated with colored sugar and sold as sweets in coastal towns in Kenya (where the tree is most common).
A. digitata is also employed as a plant medicine. A decoction of the bark is used to steam-bath infants with high fever. A juice made from the mashed pulp is drunk to treat fever.
This versatile tree also yields a fiber (taken from the trunk) used as string for weaving baskets and ropes. Strings are first stripped from the trunk, chewed for softening, then woven.
Trees are traditionally used for placing bee hives, assumedly due to the high quality honey produced with the pollen of its flowers.
In parts of Kenya it is believed that the appearance of new leaf growth or flowers is an indicator that the rainy season is going to start. Fallen trees provide a huge amount of biomass and decompose over time improving the soil quality significantly.
Perhaps more then any other tree in east Africa, this one is associated with complex myths, legends, and beliefs amongst peoples in areas where it grows. For instance: Young plants are never cut down, while large trees are never debarked (for sap or fiber) just before the onset of rainy season for fear that to do so would keep rain from falling. The Baobab is considered to be a sacred and peaceful tree. A cut in the tree is said to bleed like a human being. And in the region of Meru, there is a belief that a person will turn into the opposite sex if they walk in a circle around the tree with a goat.
The tree is easily propagated from seed. For higher germination rates seeds can be scarified or put in boiling water briefly and let to cool. Naturally a seed can take several years to find water and germinate. The tree is very slow growing and should not be planted near houses as lateral roots can reach lengths of a hundred m or more. A tree is said to begin producing fruit after 60 years, so plant one now!
In Kenya there are three distinct varieties, differing mostly in the degree of sweetness of the pulp and size of the seed. The shape of the trees and fruit will also vary.