Magazine article The Spectator

The Remarkable Baobab/the Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern Ireland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Remarkable Baobab/the Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Goui and phooey THE REMARKABLE BAOBAB by Thomas Pakenham Weidenfeld, £12.99, pp. 144, ISBN 0297843737 * £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

THE HERITAGE TREES OF BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND by Ben Stokes and Donald Rodger, with a foreword by Thomas Pakenham and photographs by Archie Miles and Edward Parker Constable, £16.99, pp. 192, ISBN 1841199591 * £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The Wolof call it a goui, the Tswana a moana, the French the calabash tree and all Australia the boab. Welcome to the strange world of the baobab tree, the subject of Thomas Pakenham's excellent new book.

The tree was discovered for Europe in 1749 by a 21-year-old Frenchman, Michel Adanson, after whom it has, taxonomically, been named. He was paddled out to the island of Sor, in Senegal, 'to hunt antelope' and instead found the baobab. It's one of the largest living things in the world, as well as being among the most useful. Its girth is often over 100 feet. The seeds are eaten roasted and their pods made into snuff-boxes (for instance). Their protective pulp is rich in vitamin C. The hard, waterproof outer shell is converted into all sorts of domestic articles - Pakenham instances castanets. The flowers and leaves go into salads. The bark, which is used for ropes and roof tiles, grows back like cork after being stripped. But the timber is as soft as balsa and of no consequence.

There are eight species of baobab, six of them native to Madagascar. Introductions from these have been made to many other countries with hot, dry zones. Pollination for some species is by the hawkmoth (which will only come to a perfumed flower) and for others by bats (which prefer a flower stinking of carrion). Unless felled by farmers, which is increasingly the case in Madagascar, where the most spectacular specimens of A. Grandidieri survive, they live to about 1,000 years, the same as oaks.

In appearance some resemble the fat, untidy cigars of the pre-machine era. Others are frightful sprawlers. Like the kapok and bottle trees, their stomachs have to carry enough water to get them through the summer heats. One specimen at Duiwelskloof incorporates a pub. Another, in north Australia, used to be a prison. …

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