Visit the Theosophical Society or the museum to spot this tall, imposing tree
It is a befitting coincidence. The giant baobab tree towers in splendid isolation on a mound, in the compound of Olcott bungalow deep in the woods of the Theosophical Society, its pre-historic appearance in perfect sync with its surroundings. With its 25-ft girth, 100-ft height, 50-plus year history and barrenness — except for twiggy branches and drying fruits — it’s mammoth, imposing but aloof.
As in the elephant story, people taken in by its different aspects have named it in honour of what they saw. So feel free to call it boab, boaboa, bottle tree, the tree of life, upside-down tree, and monkey-bread tree — the last one probably because of the soft, bread-like kernel in the fruit monkeys enjoy.
My guide, naturalist Prof. Chandrasekaran pauses in his clicking spree to say: “Baobab is the common name of a genus (Adansonia) of eight species of trees. They are native to Madagascar, mainland Africa and Australia. This is the national tree of Madagascar.” The tree grows 16-98 ft tall and 23-36 ft in girth, its trunk can hold some 120,000 litres of water.”
Naturalist Suresh, who lives on the campus adds, “This one, Adansonia Digitata, grows in South Africa and bears the baobab fruit.” Mature trees are frequently hollow, provide living space for numerous animals and humans alike, he says. For most of the year, the tree is leafless, and looks like its roots are sticking up in the air — probably why it’s called “upside-down” and “dead-rat”. I settle for “Tree of Life”.
More interesting is information about its fruit. The largest is about 7 inches long, 3 pounds in weight, has a hard outer shell. I crack open one to find that the fruit pulp has naturally gone dry. From this is made organic Baobab fruit-powder, which, Africans believe, increases energy levels, supports immunity, fights inflammation, provides healthy fibre. Baobab fruit is high on nutrition, claims limitlessgood.com explaining that it contains six times antioxidants of blueberries, six times vitamin C of oranges, six times potassium of bananas, more magnesium than coconut water, twice as much calcium as milk, more iron than red meat.
UK-based Chef Malcolm Riley, whose family comes from Zambia, never misses an opportunity to promote its nutritional properties. “The contents of the pod look like sugar cubes, with anything from 30 to 60 pieces inside,” he said. “These are sieved into powder which has a unique flavour.
You can blend a delicious smoothie with baobab powder, apple juice, some natural yoghurt and a handful of blueberries.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3eXYc5dhx0). But that is for his affluent customers.
In sub-Saharan Burkina Faso, a baobab tree is a life-saver. Here tree-foods like baobab and moringa help prevent malnutrition.
As a child, Riley would ignore the fruit, opting for the juicier mango in the season. But now he lovingly creates recipes from the powder — everything from Victoria sponge cakes to jams. “Its high pectin content makes it a great thickening agent. If you make ice-cream with it you can add less dairy and sugar than you normally would.”
Tree Aid, a charity organisation working to draw attention to the nutritional and economic benefits of indigenous tree foods, has made baobab central to its work as it can survive without rain for 10 years.
The Theosophical Society forest has one more baobab. If things go right, many might grow from the fallen seeds.