Book tells all about the ‘upside-down tree’

The baobab tree is suspected to live for up to 2,000 years

In Summary

• Baobabs are still widespread but alarmingy young ones are not more common

Baobab beside a rural road as captured in the book
Baobab beside a rural road as captured in the book

The African Baobab

By Rupert Watson

Published by Penguin Random House

The African Baobab tells you everything you need to know about baobabs, the giant tree common at the coast and the drylands of Kenya. It is long-lived, often leafless, has a huge trunk, and is called the ‘upside-down tree’ because its branches look more like tree roots.

Baobabs originated in Madagascar but were then dispersed by ocean currents and voyagers to all over Africa, India and to northwest Australia, where there is a substantial native population. In recent years, the baobab has also been transplanted to Florida.

Rupert Watson is a gentleman naturalist, former lawyer, keen birder and chairman of Nature Kenya. He writes very well as evidenced by his other book, called Culture Clash: The Death of a District Commissioner in the Loita Hills.

This book tells you everything you want to know about baobabs and is illustrated with great photos, many taken by Watson himself, who has travelled all over Africa, collecting photos and stories about the baobabs. Its Latin name is Adansonia digitata, but Madagascar has another four species of Adansonia, which look slightly different, along with a sixth species in Australia.

Book cover
Book cover

The baobab is still mysterious; its pollinator is not yet known, but is probably the Egyptian fruit bat or possibly the hawk moth. Its average age is unknown but is probably at least 200 years up to 2,000 years old. The British explorer and missionary David Livingstone carved his initials in a giant baobab near Victoria Falls 150 years ago and they are still there.

Its origin is probably Madagascar (now confirmed by DNA analysis). It has been spread, probably, by baboons excreting seeds and humans spitting out its juicy fruit (rich in Vitamin C). It is inhabited by many animals, including lizards, snakes, monkeys and birds, including eagles, rollers, sunbirds, weavers and hornbills.

Its leaves, fruit and bark are nutritious and medicinal. Baobab wood has a high moisture content, so it does not burn well, but sustains elephants in times of drought. 

Baobabs are still widespread but it is alarming that young baobabs are not more common. Is this because of goats grazing, climate change or population pressure? This is the final mystery, which needs to be solved soon if we are to continue enjoying these majestic trees across Kenya.

In the meantime, The African Baobab is a must-read for anyone interested in the environment and Kenyan trees.

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