Named after a French botanist, Baobab – known as Adansonia – is a close-knit family. Save for one errant cousin, known as the bottle tree, in Australia, they are found on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Andansonia kilima is native to the dry plateaux of south and west of Africa, while digitata grows north along the Rift Valley, across the Horn of Africa and over the Red Sea, amongst the frankincense trees in Yemen and Oman. The other six varieties of this singular tree are to be found over the Mozambique Channel on the red island of Madagascar, separated from their kin on the mainland by 250 miles and 88 million years.
They have their pot-bellied trunks in common, bursting up from the dust like swollen termite mounds, or clay vessels. These comic outlines, resembling the silhouette of an upside down tree, as the locals describe it, serve a very serious need, however; like the hump of a camel or the fleshy lobes of a cactus decorated with spines, they store water between the rains. Like the oak and the birch, the baobab is deciduous, but instead of dropping its leaves to preserve its energy against the cold, it stands naked under the relentless sun for nine months of the year, and is only clothed during the brief rainy season.
On just one day of the year, the baobab blooms, its flowers huge and crinkled, like a wedding dress brought down in a box from the attic once in every generation. When the flowers fade and the petals drop, in their place fruits the size of coconuts swell. So-called ‘monkey bread’ is tart and sweet, its pulp added to porridge or cooling drinks. The baobabs leaves are medicinal, its bark is woven into rope. The trees can live for thousands of years – if the elephants don’t get them first, stripping them and trampling their branches – and mature trees grow hollow providing shelter from the burning sun that shaped them.