The Baobab. Part 1.

My mother doesn’t like rhinos. She doesn’t actively dislike them; they just leave her cold. She’s indifferent to them. She loves wildlife just as much as the rest of my family, and will happily spend hours watching a pair of squirrels running around the stoep or haul herself out of bed in the middle of the night to watch the shifting shadow of an elephant crash its way past the house in the moonlight, but set her up in front of a prehistoric 2500kg behemoth with a pair of sharpened spikes at one end, and she will set about wondering what to cook for supper or trying to remember whether or not she turned off the lights in the bathroom that morning.

Ho hum. I wonder if there's anything good on TV this afternoon.

Ho hum. I wonder if there’s anything good on TV this afternoon.

This might seem a little odd. But I get it. This is an African Fish Eagle.

No, America, it's not yours, it's ours. We use it to advertise wine.

No, America, it’s not yours, it’s ours. We use it to advertise wine.

It is an icon. It’s one of those magical creatures that has somehow managed to distil the essence of a place into its very being. Ask any lover of the African bush about the Fish Eagle and he will suddenly get a faraway look as he is transported to another place. He will close his eyes and picture the graceful dip of the eagle, talons extended, down to the water of a Lowveld river as the African sunset paints the world blazing red. He will hear the haunting call ring out in his mind, and he will suddenly withdraw from the conversation as he begins to plan his next trip down to the bush.

Not me. I actively dislike the buggers. They’re just too much. They overdo things. They are, for me, a little bit like one of those otherwise beautiful women who has made a parody of themselves by getting hair extensions, fake boobs, Botox, collagen lip implants and six inch nails in order to attract the sort of men who think buying Ferraris makes them the envy of their peers.

Her lipstick apparently infuriated a swarm of bees.

Her lipstick apparently infuriated a swarm of bees.

To be fair, it’s not the Fish Eagles’ fault. They just make things a little too easy for those wishing to capture the essence of wild Africa. For a start, there’s this.

Animal behaviourists have spent years training  Fish Eagles to water-ski.

Animal behaviourists have spent years training Fish Eagles to water-ski.

Look at that! The photographer has somehow, with infinite patience and split-second timing, managed to capture that magic moment when the eagle stoops down to snatch a fish from the water. He’s even managed to get it in focus!

Or not. Fish Eagles are as much scavengers as they are fishers. That shot is not a rare trophy for an avid wildlife photographer. To get that shot, all you have to do is throw a dead fish into the water. Focus your camera on the dead fish, wait a moment or two, and you’ll get your shot. You and everyone else.

We sell a lot of wine.

We sell a lot of wine.

Then there’s this.

Nice, isn’t it? It’s also pretty easy to find. They do that all day. It’s very trying.

What this all means is that the Fish Eagle has become a cliché. An advertisers dream. Turn on the TV, and there they’ll be, swooping low over the water in slow motion to advertise whiskey, or throwing their heads back and letting out that evocative call in praise of life insurance companies and cheap weekend getaways.

Open a magazine, and there “that” shot will be, the heraldic eagle, powerful legs thrown forward, majestic wings swept back, talons mere millimetres from the surface of the water, all the better to show you how cool it would be to buy your plumbing supplies from ACME, or play a round of golf at a resort that has laid claim to the wilderness of a continent because it has a bird living there.

So why am I grumbling about Fish Eagles. Well, I’m feeling a little grumpy, for a start. I was up all night thinking about rock-salt and curry powder. As one does. But I’m also working my way up to writing about a tree. This tree.

African clichés are a little better than most.

African clichés are a little better than most.

It’s a Baobab. And it is very much in danger of falling prey to the fate of the Fish Eagle. It was created fully formed by an ancient god, so that his children might slap it onto T-shirts and magazine covers and paintings and adverts for camping equipment. It’s almost too much. It’s almost too evocative of the wild, open spaces of Africa.

Almost. The baobab manages to save itself, by being a very credible contender for the “Most Amazing Tree in the World” trophy.

Yup. In case you hadn’t cottoned on already, it’s time for another post about the ecosystem of the Lowveld. I’m writing about a tree again. And I don’t really know where to begin, because there is nothing about this tree that isn’t interesting. You could write a rather substantial book about Baobabs. And people have. I won’t. But I will have to split this post in two.

I suppose the best place to start is with this;

The one in the middle.

The one in the middle.

That’s the General Sherman Tree. It’s a giant Sequoia. And it’s the biggest tree in the world. It’s not the tallest, but it’s the most massive. Everything about it is just big. It’s nearly 84m tall, and has a diameter of nearly 8m. To stand at its base and look up at it must be a truly awe-inspiring experience.

Baobabs are the giants of the African bushveld. They are nothing like as tall as the General Sherman Tree. They aren’t even as tall as most pine trees. They’re only about 25m tall. But they make up for their lack of height with their girth. The really big ones have diameters of over 15m. They are big, big trees. And while they will never compete with the giant sequoias, they are pretty awe inspiring too.

The one in the middle.

The one in the middle.

In fact, they might just have an ace up their sleeves in the awe-inspiring department. If you look at that picture of the General Sherman Tree, you’ll see that it’s in the middle of a forest. And while they talk about people not seeing the forest for the trees, the reverse must also be true. The General Sherman Tree is really, really big tree tucked away amongst a bunch of really big trees. This is how Baobabs usually grow.

The forests in the Lowveld tend to be a little sparse.

The forests in the Lowveld tend to be a little sparse.

There is not, as you can see, much other stuff around to prevent the baobabs from inspiring awe. They are giants in a land full of dwarves.

Their size is all the more remarkable when you consider that they are succulents. Yup. That 15m wide beast of a tree belongs to the same group as those little novelty pots you find on the counter at nurseries, filled with cactuses and stone-plants.

The Baobab would need a slightly bigger pot.

The Baobab would need a slightly bigger pot.

And that fact explains the first set of amazing things about the Baobab. It’s a sponge. A great big barrel of water in a dry and thirsty land. That is why it looks so comically swollen and misshapen. Unlike most trees, the trunk is not there to lift the leaves up to the heavens. The trunk is there to hold water.

While we’re on the whole issue of leaves, you will notice that in most of the pictures you see of baobabs, there aren’t any. This is partly because Baobabs just look cooler without leaves. They look like sculptures.

I said sculptural, not monumental.

I said sculptural, not monumental.

But that’s not the only reason. Leaves are a problem for plants in very dry places. They lose water. A lot of succulents have done away with leaves altogether, like the cactuses and a lot of the Euphorbias. The Baobabs haven’t gone quite so far. But they’re getting there. In some particularly dry areas they have leaves for less than 3 months a year.

It's just not the same.

It’s just not the same.

Being an enormous sponge gives rise to some other interesting characteristics. If you’ve ever stood at the base of one, with a palm stretched out and pressed onto the smooth, cool bark, it won’t surprise you to hear that the original inhabitants of this land thought they were magic. But some of the magic was pretty specific.

One of the stories told about the Baobab was that it did not grow or die like ordinary trees. It simply appeared and disappeared. This is absolutely true.

Should you, on your next free weekend, pop round to the General Sherman Tree and chop it down (remember to warm up thoroughly before starting and keep yourself well hydrated) that will not be the end of it. An 85m long, 7m wide dead Sequoia is likely to stick around for a while. Not so the Baobab. Kill even the biggest of Baobabs, and all you will be left with is a spongy mass, that disappears into the environment within months, leaving no sign at all that a giant tree stood there for centuries. Or millennia. There are even reports of dead Baobabs spontaneously combusting, as if they could not bear to leave their mark on the environment for even a moment longer.

So that takes care of the spontaneous disappearance side of the equation. But what about the story of their spontaneous appearance. That’s not quite as true, but isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. The Baobab’s scientific name is the adansonia digitata. The digitata part of that name refers to the fact that the leaves of a baobab are usually made up of five leaflets, like human fingers.

If you squint really hard.

If you squint really hard.

This is a baby Baobab.

Squint as hard as you like; it's not going to happen.

Squint as hard as you like; it’s not going to happen.

It doesn’t have leaves made up of five leaflets. And it’s not particularly succulent looking. In fact, even a well-trained botanist would be forgiven for thinking that it was an entirely different species.

Their sponginess gives rise to another interesting thing about Baobabs. Everyone agrees that Baobabs get very old indeed. But no-one knows quite how old. Estimates for the oldest ones vary between about a thousand years and about two thousand five hundred years. Which is quite a margin of error.

Once you’re done chopping down the General Sherman Tree, you can spend a happy few hours, or days, counting the growth rings on the trunk to see how old it was. You can even trace a bit of its history, spotting fires and droughts and years of plenty etched permanently into the body of the tree. You can’t do this with a sponge.

Weekend reading for botanists.

Weekend reading for botanists.

Baobabs do apparently have very faint growth rings, but they are almost invisible, and, in such a harsh climate, are no true reflection of the age of the tree. The only way to date a baobab seems to be carbon dating.

And that, good people, will have to be all for part one. I’ve barely even scratched the surface, so stay tuned for part two. In which I’ll tell you what happens if you scratch the surface of a Baobab. There’ll be elephants! Bats! Lemonade! The European Union! Smoothies! Medicine! I hope to see you there.

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47 thoughts on “The Baobab. Part 1.

  1. Wonderful description of both the fish eagle and (my husband’s) reactions to it and the look he gets in his eye when he says it is his favorite sound from home.

  2. jenna says:

    I am now rather in love with baobabs but I think that rhino is going to give me nightmares!

  3. elizabethweaver says:

    Extraordinary shot!

  4. So they are succulents? Live and learn. Here’s another freakish tree for you, the gumwood trees (native to St. Helen) that are related to – sunflowers! Did see that one coming, did you! And as far as awesome trees go, Dragon’s blood trees and the Desert Rose deserve to be included. Look through these, they’re both there: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/06/socotra/melford-moffett-photography#/01-socotra-icon-dragons-blood-tree-670.jpg

  5. Ashana M says:

    Remind me, if I ever visit, South Africa to never turn on a TV. I rather like fish eagles. I’d hate to have them spoiled for me. That might be because the most majestic bird where I live is a vulture.

  6. It takes a lot to make a slumbering greyhound leap from its bed but apparently your eagle (or at least its call) has what it takes. I find this particularly surprising as we regularly have buzzards and golden eagles flying over our garden, and sometimes white-tailed eagles too. She’s not bothered by them.
    Baobabs have all my life been associated with being forced to read The Little Prince in French at school. So I hope this and the next post will change that association.

    • 23thorns says:

      thankfully I have never bowed to the pressure to read The Little Prince. Baobabs? I thought it was about a goat…
      As for your greyhound, had you considered the possibility that he might be part fish?

  7. sjcourchesne says:

    Our American Bald Eagles get used to sell things, like cars. And patriotism. But in most commercials, they play a sound that is supposedly the eagle’s majestic shriek. In reality, they usually use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk, because Bald Eagles actually sound like squeaky toys. But the cliché would be harmed by that truth. So we largely ignore it.

  8. mariekeates says:

    Unlike your mother I quite like rhinos, especially as we have just had a city filled with colourfully painted ones (maybe I wouldn’t be as fond of the real thing). The Baobab, however, totally overshadows them (and not just in a physical way), they are the most amazing trees ever. Can’t wait for part two.

  9. That is very interesting, it being a succulent. Amazing.

    The shape, with it’s thick squat trunk, reminds me a little of our ancient pollarded oak trees. But without the sunset…

  10. joanfrankham says:

    Baobabs are my favourite tree/succulent/species, so I look forward to part 2. They are ugly beasts though! Ugly but beautiful.

  11. I too dislike eagles. Where I live on the North coast of PEI we have bald eagles, who have a taste for other than just fish. My farmer neighbour lost 13 cats last summer, mostly to eagles and roaming coy-wolves. And now, for the past 8 days, my favorite tabby Edna is missing 😦

  12. Mmnm says:

    noooo don’t leave me hanging like this! D:

  13. My mother doesn’t like rhinos – not something I have ever asked my Mum! I know she doesn’t like dogs, does that mean anything?

  14. Jocelyn Hers says:

    Somehow missed your post “Still Here”. Have just read it and am very pleased to see that your head has filled up and is spilling over again!

  15. Jocelyn Hers says:

    The call of the Fish Eagle is the “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” of the veld; causing that same automatic nostalgic response….
    In Mapungubwe the baobabs grow in lines, not close together, but definitely straight lines. Anyone know what eats rhe seeds and moves in straight lines? It is really quite noticeable.

  16. Thanks for the informative post! I’m with your mom – I’m not bored by rhinos, but I’m never as excited about them as I feel I ought to be.
    (P.S. Don’t forget to capitalize the first letter of the genus in the scientific name of the baobab.)

  17. We have nothing like the Baobab tree, here in rainy Wales, but do have a lovely mix of Oak, Ash, Birch, Beech, Hazel, Lime, Rowan, Sycamore, Yew, and even a few Elm left – though we’re more known for the plantations of Sitka Spruce, which hubby used to fell in years gone by, so there’s always a hint of the exotic in reading about the Baobab tree – and it was a real surprise to learn it’s a succulent!
    It doesn’t matter that it, and the Fish Eagle, have become clichés, as there’s always another generation who comes along and finds the new in them – such a wonderful spirit of Africa 🙂
    I’m looking forward to reading part 2 of this wonderful tree’s life now 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      Oh, we have the pine plantations here, too. I loath them. Nothing here is adapted to live in them, and they just don’t look like they belong. Still, paper is kind of important, so I suppose we’ll just have to live with them.

  18. narf77 says:

    Does EVERYTHING in Africa have some sort of strange behaviour attached to it? I am starting to think that the reason that David Attenborough spends so much of what is left of his life in Africa is that it is so easy to find something doing something strange! Why does that eagle throw its head back?! Is it something to do with its white neck and terrifying fellow fish scavengers away from the latest smoked trout being hurled into the river by an overly eager bevvy of American and Japanese tourists with enormous cameras strung around their necks (curiously forcing their own necks back into a weird parody of what they are trying to photograph…)???

    I think it is a clever survival mechanism that the eagle has developed. Make yourself an institution, invaluable to photographers around the world, and you can rest on your laurels. You are set for life. People hurl your dinner at you from stage left and you can just sit back and bask in the fact that no-one wants to shoot you out of the sky anymore because there is more money to be made out of “shooting” you with a camera…clever bird!

    Steve and I LOVE baobabs. Australia has a couple herself and you didn’t even have to send them over here in a box of “mixed weeds” for a change! We have managed to grow them till they got to about 4 inches high and they all die…we have NEVER managed to grow one yet. We imported seed from Africa…we bought seed from Australia…we found a Baobab seed in our horticulture classroom and cunningly pinched the seed out of it and attempted to grow them…lots of germination but the curse of the 4 inch hit and suddenly…dead.

    Baobabs in leaf look like Don King. It’s no wonder they shed their leaves so readily ;). I am starting to think that you are writing scripts Mr 23Thorns! Leaving us all on a cliff hanger like that… Lemonade?!!! “Stay tuned to the next enthralling episode of Down on the Lowveld where the mighty Baobab spontaneously combusts and randomly generates a paradox further down South where all of the seedling Baobab’s unite in a suicide pact in support of their giant comrade”…sigh…

    • 23thorns says:

      Water. The Baobabs hate it. Plant your next Seed in a pot filled mostly with coarse river sand, and then just never water it. I kept one alive in Jo’burg for years by planting it in a bonsai pot and then just ignoring it. And drinking lemonade.

      • narf77 says:

        You drank lemonade or the baobab did? Serious question. Dad swore black and blue that an orchid that he had on the deck never flowered once in 10 years till he decided to kill it by pouring his beer dregs (I KNOW the man had dregs? What was wrong with him?!!!) onto it. It flowered from that point on. Steve and I are in love with euphorbias (something about the prickles and the poisonous sap is strangely alluring) and anything from Madagascar is in. We would love to have a few baobabs on the farm up the top where it is arid and dry all of the time and where we could really piss off our neighbours to the rear(double bonus that!). Cheers for the hint. We will try again, just got to find more seed now!

      • 23thorns says:

        Be careful. My father nearly blinded himself by rubbing his eyes after playing with his Euphorbia ingens. But they’re the same as the Baobabs; stick them in a mix made mostly of river-sand so that any water you give them drains away as soon as possible.

      • narf77 says:

        We grew some Pachypodium lamerei but the other Pachypodium seed that grew never grew very big. Might be the same thing. Steve is keen to give Baobabs another go. Did you know that the common weed Euphorbia peplus is being researched here in Australia as a possible treatment for skin cancers? For years Aussies have been rubbing the milky sap onto skin cancers and apparently there is some merit in it. Interesting that something so irritating might actually be of use and it only goes to show how tenacious we Aussies are (tenacious or stupid 😉 ) to keep rubbing something that burns like hell onto painful lesions in order to remove them. Who was the first person who even thought of that, let alone the next person who perpetuated it!

  19. Pat Bean says:

    The blog received a Bean’s Pat as blog pick of the day. Check it out at: http://patbean.wordpress.com

  20. billgncs says:

    actually we are off this weekend to San Francisco and a trip to Muir woods to see the Redwoods. In my heart though – -seeing the baobabs would be beyond great.

    Agree about eagles… mostly good looking vultures.

  21. ksbeth says:

    interesting and i cannot wait to find out more )

  22. Art Brûlant says:

    Ya, so Fish Eagles have become cliché. Anything can given the right context. I still like the Fish Eagle and have always really liked the Baobab. I am not going to let some cliché spoil the object of that cliché for me. Besides a cliché isn’t really about the object/person/animal anyway.

    Thanks for another great post……….Fish Eagles and Baobabs GREAT!

  23. Susan M says:

    Mr. 23Thorns, your part of the world is beautiful and magical. We have American Bald Eagles in my part of the US, and whenever I see one I feel just like the people you describe when they see an African Fish Eagle. I think it’s OK to feel the magic of a place, even if you live there and see it on a regular basis.

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