Baobab trees with their huge barrel shaped trunks and wizened bark are synonymous with Africa. They are widespread in tropical, arid and sandy habitats and provide important for food and materials for many tribes.
The tree above is one planted in Mannar, Sri Lanka, by Arab traders back in 1477. It is small relative to many African examples, being only 7.5m high with a circumference of 19.5m. In Africa they can reach up to 25m high and 45m in circumference.
Close up, the bark really does look like the skin of an elephant.
Baobab’s are members of the genus Adansonia. A digitata above is the most widespread species but there are nine in all. They inhabit arid, sandy and tropical environments. Like other trees in the Bombacaceae family, such as balsa wood, the silk floss tree, kapok and Bombax species, their remarkable barrel shaped or inflated trunks are adapted for water storage.
I managed to grow this seedling from seeds bought in Paris (see photo). Note that it has entire leaves, not palmate leaves like a mature tree. The seeds look a bit like rough brown aniseed balls, about half a centimetre in diametre. To get them to germinate you have to soak them in boiling water for fifteen minutes, plant them and then wait – often many months. I got one germination out of five seeds, and the seedling did not survive many months on a London window sill.
Perhaps this is the tree I would most like to see, Grandidier’s baobab – Adansonia grandidieri –which is only found in Madagascar. Surely it is one of the botanical wonders of the world.
What a wonderful flora that island has. I’d love to go there and see it!
There are many fabulous trees in the world but we can grow only a small proportion of them in our British temperate climate. Here’s the tropical silk floss tree, Ceiba speciosa, which originates from Brazil and Argentina, but can be seen growing on streets in Barcelona. What a lucky city that is!
There’s something prehistoric about the silk floss tree. Its trunk is swollen like a bottle and armed with the most vicious looking spines. You could never climb it without serious protection! Perhaps they evolved to protect the tree from giant South American sloths, which are now extinct.
The leaves are glossy and palmate, and the flowers fabulously exotic. They are about 12cm across with 5 pink petals joined to an orange and red centre. There are huge sex organs (styles and stamens) which stick proudly out of the middle.
And the fruit too is strange, bursting open with silky hairs and seeds.
It is of course a relative of the kapok tree which produces a fibre used for stuffing cushions and a member of the notable tropical tree family Bombacaceae. This is a remarkable group in itself including many strange members such as the baobab, the durian, balsa wood and of course kapok. The trees often have swollen trunks or even massive elephantine trunks and branches which help store water, and I guess that is what the soft balsa wood is designed for. Other members of the family such as Bombax and other Ceiba species have light timbers which are used for making matchsticks.
The trees are also deciduous, so may lose their leaves in the dry or colder seasons.
In Barcelona you can see these trees where the major boulevard Avinguda del Parallel reaches the port – close to the bottom of the famous Ramblas. There are several of these marvellous trees in this park amongst the palms. If you’re lucky they will be in flower and fruit at the same time.
Barcelona has a favourable climate and a great collection of street trees. The city council’s website goes into some detail on its street trees and reveals that these silk floss trees are believed to be 80 years old, but were only planted in their present location in 1992 for the Olympic games. Fortunately they are doing well!