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From Verne to Saint-Exupery.

"On the Planet of the Little Prince there were terrible seeds... They were baobab seeds. The entire planet was infested. And a baobab, if you let it grow, produces such roots that are very difficult to uproot. It eventually takes over the space, perforating the earth with its roots. If the planet is very small and the baobabs are very numerous, they make it explode."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince (1943)

French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944) wrote about a little prince who lived on a small planet. On a visit to Earth, the prince innocently and charmingly asked the author what he thought of life. Thanks to this little prince and the voice of the author, the desert and its snakes, the sheep that eat the roses, the disorderly geographer, the sunsets, and especially the baobabs have entered the collective imagination of generations of readers. The baobabs on the planet of the little prince, in fact, gave its only inhabitant nothing but problems; he had to dedicate himself to cutting back the baobab to save the limited space available to him.

Michel Adanson (1727-1806), was a Provencal philosopher and botanist who studied under Bernard de Jussieu. Dissatisfied with learning from books, he received a wise recommendation: "Now that you have learnt to study the works of men, you can study the works of nature." When he was 20 years old he traveled to Senegal and started his long career of botanical observations--a career that led to his entry into the Academie Francaise when he was only 30. The baobab genus, Adansonia, was named after him in honor of his research, including his description of the baobabs in a monograph published in 1761.

Many years before this, however, Alvise Ca'da Mosto (Da Mosto) (1432-1488), a Venetian explorer in the service of Don Enrique, the Infante of Portugal, had already described these enormous members of the Bombacaceae family after the two expeditions he made to Africa. Baobabs had also entered literature long before Saint-Exupery: Jules Verne (1828-1905), in his 1901 publication Le village aerien, tells of immense thick forests of acacias and casts his frightened protagonists into exciting adventures between solitary baobabs. Andre Gide (1869-1951), writing in Le retour du Tchad (1928), also describes the savannah landscapes, including the baobabs.

Clearly, both botanists and explorers were captivated by the enormous ancient baobabs. Baobabs are well known to the people living in the savannahs; they are known as gui to the Wolof, bak to the Serer, bobbe, boki, and olohi to the Fulbe (or Fulani), bu tobu to the Gurma, sira to the Bambara, and toega and twega to the Mossi.

The typical baobabs of the African savannah, where they grow alone or in small groups, have a bizarre and quite unmistakable morphology. The grossly thickened trunk is like a water reservoir and is impressively large at up to 82 ft (25 m) tall and 49 ft (15 m) in diameter. The crown is small in relation to the trunk and bears rootlike branches that shed their leaves in the dry season. Some local legends say that God, or perhaps the devil, planted the baobab upside down! As soon as the rains start, the baobabs sprout new leaves and their 6-8 in (15-20 cm) long flowers appear. They hang from long flower stalks and are pollinated by bats and small mammals. The flowers are bright white in the most common species, Adansonia digitata, found on the African mainland. The fruits, depending on the species, are ovoid or like elongated squashes that hang from the branches. The floury pulp is edible and is known as monkeybread, Senegal squash or cucumber, Judas bag, or Egyptian walnut. Baobab seeds are used to make drinks rich in vitamin C and tartaric acid.

The range of the baobabs includes the subhumid and subarid regions of tropical Africa, especially Madagascar. They occur mainly on deep, moist, limestone soils. The dry savannahs of Madagascar are the stronghold of the baobabs. There is only a single species on mainland Africa, but on Madagas-car there are seven. In addition to Adansonia digitata, these include the endemic baobabs A. grandidieri, the largest of all; the very rare A. madagascariensis; the small A. fony, which is the most grotesque of all; and A. za. There is also an Australian baobab, A. gregorii, of uncertain origin that might have arrived by the oceanic dispersal of its seeds. It grows in a small area of northwest Australia, especially in Kimberley, normally isolated or in association with other species. The Aborigines draw features of their surroundings on its bark (mammals, fish, trees, and the like).

Baobabs have always been venerated in some cultures, and in many places they are legally protected. Farmers respect them, and they obtain many benefits from them. In addition to the pulp of the fruit, the leaves and flowers can be consumed, and the bark is used to make ropes, baskets, and soap. The leaves are thought to control excessive sweating, and a solution made from the leaves is used to reduce fevers. In the past, the corpses of those thought unworthy of proper burial were hung inside the deep cavities of the baobab's trunk. Some empty trunks have been used as houses, prisons, stables, or as permanent shelters by both people and animals.

Recent [sup.14]C datings show that some baobabs, like the one in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, may reach an age of 3,000 years. (Baobab is a Sudanese word that means tree 1,000 years old.) This particular tree is actually protected as a national monument.
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Title Annotation:Antoine de Saint-Exupery, baobabs
Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Previous Article:El Orinoco Ilustrado.
Next Article:Who digests the wood?

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