Baobabs originated in Madagascar, an island that was shut off from the rest of Africa more than 100 million years ago. There, it served as a breeding ground for strange creatures. Ninety percent of the island’s flora and fauna are unique to Earth; its 850 types of orchids, along with the most famous lemurs, are among them. This region is home to six native baobab species, all of which have evolved to survive in the dry soils of the Madagascan savanna. Moths, bats, and even bush babies which have been observed nibbling the petals and fiddling with the powder puff stamens pollinate their waxy white blooms.

They have developed small branches, shrunken crowns, and leaves that shed early in the dry season as a means of conserving water. These flat, foreshortened topknots resemble roots when the trees are young. This is explained by a folklore from the area that says the original baobab was too lovely for its own good. The deities gave it a topsyturvy appearance as a penalty for its arrogance and, just for kicks, gave it a heavy build.

However, the paunches and elephantine buttresses that mature trees develop on them are primarily responsible for baobabs’ survival during the dry season. Their trunkwood turns into a live cistern that can hold hundreds of gallons of water since it is just as soft and absorbent as balsa. The striking thing is how frequently baobabs mirror human water vessels—not just in a general sense, but in the precise details of accommodating a barrel and narrowing a neck, as if the design of all liquid containers were dictated by physical requirements.

It’s possible that early Africans did not require baobabs as an inspiration for their own handcrafted vessels, but it is still simple to understand how both species overcame the difficulty of containing a volatile, mobile material. Baobabs evoke memories of outstanding magnum wine bottles, petrol cans, pitchers, and chamber pots. An example of Adansonia za, found near Ifaty on Madagascar, is an enormous three-dimensional model of a canteen teapot, complete with an upward-pointing spout. I imagine that the baobab tree, the vegetable pitcher, and the paunch would have piqued the interest of Vermeer, whose interior paintings are filled with the flowing curves of jars and jugs echoing those of their human users.

Baobabs originated in Madagascar, an island that was shut off from the rest of Africa more than 100 million years ago
The seeds of one of the ancient baobab species, which are cosseted in huge buoyant pods, drifted out across the Mozambique Channel and landed on the East African continent at some point in the previous 10 million years. After the seeds sprouted, the trees developed into a seventh species over thousands of years. As the most successful and adaptable member of the species, Adansonia digitata quickly spread throughout the continent with the assistance of locals who saw it as a resourceful, flexible, and kind companion. During the initial phases of his journey on the Beagle in 1832, Charles Darwin was shown a large baobab located 300 miles west of the African mainland in the Cape Verde islands. Darwin etched his initials on it, but he couldn’t have believed the 6,000-year-old claim. These old trees can be forced into service as village reservoirs when they become hollow; they are essentially water tanks enclosed in watery shells.

Mainland Africa is when the baobab first encountered its mammalian counterpart. Absent from Madagascar, elephants zeroed in on these intriguingly pachydermic invaders. With an intensity that appeared to transcend the mere sating of large appetites, they assaulted them. They destroyed them. In order to get at the moisture beneath the trunk, they completely removed the bark from the lower portions of the tree, tore off entire branches, ate the leaves, and frequently knocked down the tiniest trees. Nonetheless, the baobab has already developed defense mechanisms against harsh conditions from Madagascar’s bushfires. The bark regrows after being damaged or stripped, regardless of the cause, much like it does on burned or stripped cork oaks.

The fallen trees just keep growing where they are, stretching out new limbs parallel to the ground, forcing up new columns, and creating wooden mountains out of their damaged trunks. A well-known tree pile near the Limpopo in South Africa is referred to as “Slurpie” by the locals, who find humor in the baobab’s complicated relationship—which involves both victimization and mimicry—with elephants. It stands for “Elephant Trunk Tree,” or Olifantslurpboom in short.

The most amazing thing about baobabs is their ability to change shape; they are shape-shifters. They are able to twist, burst, shrink, swell, and creep. They can start off as Palladian columns, get destroyed by fire or wind, and then rise again from the ashes as a torrent of lava, a cave mouth, or a coil of snakes. Stranger humans who have seen their unpredictable abilities have been motivated to dream of unpredictable things.

While exploring the Senegalese coast in 1749, Michel Adanson, a young French naturalist and adventurer, canoed out to the island of Sor. Despite his intention to hunt antelope, he was halted by this enormous, motionless, and uncatchable trophy of a different kind. In Histoire naturelle du Sénégal, he writes, “I laid aside all thoughts of sport as soon as I perceived a tree of prodigious thickness, which drew my whole attention.” Before I embraced its circumference, I spread my arms as widely as I could thirteen times. To be more precise, I measured it with a packthread and discovered that it was sixty-five feet.

Adanson was mesmerized by the weight and gravity of the baobab. Later, he discovered trees with circumferences greater than 75 feet. Based on this, he came to the conclusion that, “just as Africa can claim to be the home of the largest animals, the ostrich and the elephant, it can also be said that it is not degenerate in the vegetable department, since it gives birth to calabash trees, which are enormously larger than any other tree currently in existence, at least that we know of.”