The Little Prince and the Baobab Trees of Africa

Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it. (English)

Nunya, adidoe, asi metunee o. (Akan and Ewe)

Discovering the Baobab Trees

I’m here in the botanical gardens of La Concepcion to check out the Baobab. The first time I heard of this tree was on my tenth birthday. It was mentioned in The Little Prince, a book my aunt gave me as a present. Last year, (after almost fifty years) I read the book again —esta vez en español.

Our little principito lives in fear that his planet will be destroyed by the unchecked proliferation of the Baobab trees. This tree has caught my attention for a second time, so I decide to find out if this tree is real —and if so, I want to know what it looks like, and where it grows.

It turns out that the Baobab is not just a tree, but a complete water reservoir. It stores up to 100,000 liters of water when it rains. For my American readers, that is more than 26,000 US gallons of water. Incredible.

During the dry season, the tree looks dead, but it isn’t. It actually lives for more than 1,500 years on average, providing shelter and food for all living things in its vicinity. Its fruit is a superfood and can be bought online for those who do not live in Africa and cannot buy it from the local supermarket.

The tallest Baobabs grow to a height of 30 meters (99 ft.), and the diameter can stretch to 26 meters (87 ft.). Is it any wonder that the little prince was so concerned about his tiny planet? Just look at the size of this tree.

A Baobab in Madagascar

A visit to the Botanical Gardens

Now that I know this Baobab tree is real, I have to see it. So, I turn to Google for help. Success! There is a single Baobab sapling in the botanical gardens near where I live. I make a plan to visit on the weekend.

It’s the end of January and the sun is out, a beautiful day to be outside. On the bus, I wonder when they took the photo I saw on the website. If it’s been fifteen or more years, the tree ought to be a good size now. I put my hand on my backpack and feel the sketchbook and box of pencils I put in there. I´m going to draw the Baobab. Put it with the things I´ve seen and documented in a sketch.

At the entrance, I ask the lady if she can direct me to the Baobab tree. She doesn’t know where it is – she says, “Hay carteles con los nombres de los árboles.” I nod and say, “okay”.

As I walk along the dusty path in the morning light, I bend down to read the names on the signs where she told me they’d be. I’m looking for an Adansonia digitata, or as the locals in Africa call it “the upside-down tree”. The signs are so close to the ground, I’m almost end up upside-down myself.

Transplanted Trees from around the World

The excitement of finding the Baobab grows. I see a, Retama monosperma from the Canary Islands – a delicate tree covered in white blossoms. There’s the Argania spinosa, the tree that produces argan oil in Morocco. A little further up is Tilia tomentosa from the Balkan Peninsula. Then I spot a Ficus religiosa from India standing tall and majestic, its heart shaped leaves fluttering in the breeze. We have these in Pakistan too. I feel a pang of nostalgia but keep moving. A Ceiba insignis from Peru assertively challenges predators with its swollen bottle-shaped trunk covered in thorny spikes. So many trees, but where is the Baobab?

Then suddenly, I see a sign with AFRICA printed on it. I’m getting closer. The next time I bend down, I read Erythrina caffra from South Africa, and a Kigelia africana from Senegal. And where is the one I’m searching for? Adansonia digitata? Nowhere. But it’s still early and I have a lot of ground to cover so I keep walking.

At the top of the hill there is a domed observatory facing the Mediterranean Sea. I sit here to rest for a bit. The blue sea and the sky stretch to infinity. I imagine the pilot from my storybook landing here instead of the desert and meeting the little prince who is visiting from another planet. Their conversation about Baobab trees taking over the planet if they are not pulled out by the roots every day might be very different in this environment.

On this hilltop on the outskirts of Malaga city, botanists study the soil and environment for each transplanted species. needs, not just to survive, but to thrive. They attempt to recreate the native environment for each plant, placing it in the perfect spot depending on its need for sun, shade, well-drained soil, or constant wet, boggy ground. They use plant nutrients to supplement those already present in the soil. There is great effort made to ensure that the plants flourish. This is good.

From where I sit, I can see cacti from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. There are succulents from all over the world. I think to myself, these plants didn’t come here of their own free will. And I wonder how many did not survive this transplantation? I’m looking at the living, not the dead.

Transplantation, Relocation, and Consent

Obviously there is no way to ensure the consent of plant species when it comes to relocation. With humans, though, drowned babies of displaced families traumatize the soul. Children in cages separated from their parents searching for a better life in another country. In the history of humankind, how many people have been forced to move without their consent? How many did not survive the journey? Which communities have created an environment for the “transplants” to flourish? Not just to survive, but to actually thrive.

10 Comments »

    • I didn’t! But I haven’t given up. My next visit will be when the Wisteria is in bloom, around March/April. I will find the baobab – if it’s the last thing I do.

  1. If only we could hear these plants talk. I guess their sadness is akin to caged animals and birds. Even so, this will not stop, as man has been cruel and will continue to be so.

    • I agree with you, Samar. As humans, most of us feel entitled to take whatever we want from this planet regardless of how it affects other beings. A little empathy would go a long way – thank you for yours.

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