Leon KlugeThe GREAT baobabs of Madagascar

There is no place more strange, more unique, and best of all more exciting for plant and animal lovers seeking an adventure than one of nature’s biggest wonderlands. Madagascar!Madagascar is split into two parts by the majestic Beampingarata mountain range; the very wet lush tropical forests on the eastern side and then, my favourite, the inhospitable hot and extremely dry western side, home to the spiny forests!

Spiny forest with baobabs, Ifaty, Madagascar

When driving south to the town of Tulear on the south western side of Madagascar, you will find yourself in the presence of some of the worlds oldest and by any means the ‘fattest’ trees on earth – the boababs or monkey bread trees. (Malvaceae). There is only one species on mainland Africa called Adansonia digitata, and one in Australia called Adansonia gregorii. But Madagascar is blessed with six species, each one so very different from the next.

Adansonia grandidieri

The first and definitely the most famous is Adansonia grandidieri, named after the French botanist Alfred Grandidier. This is the boabab you see on all the Madagascan postcards and animated movies, growing in Rue de Boabab and towering over the plains with a reddish cylindrical trunk 3 meters across and 30 meters high.   It has bluish-green palmate leaves with spectacular white flowers. This is the boabab mostly exploited for domestic use, with its fruit pulp eaten raw and containing loads of vitamin C, and the seeds used to extract cooking oil from.

Adansonia za

Adansonia za is one of the weirdest ones for me. Not one looks the same as another. All have a different belly, either bulging to the left or bulging to the right, or just on the bottom, tapering to the top. It has a brownish rose-coloured trunk with a width of about 6 meters and a hight of up to 30 meters. This is a monster tree with flowers that start out as long green bean like structures, and can easilly be mistaken for the fruit of the tree before opening up. I love the flowers of Za which have beautifull yellow and red petals, usually pollinated by moths.

Adansonia madagascariensis

Adansonia madagascariensis, named by Henri Ernest Baillon in 1876, occurs in the dry deciduous forests to the north-west and north of Madagascar. It has a trunk size of about 5 meters and a height that ranges from 10 meters to about 30 meters. It has large dark red flowers about 10cm and can take a fair amount of water, unlike some other species. The fruit are round, as opposed to kidney shaped. Probably not one of the most unusual or spectacular species on the island, but someone has to make the other species look great!

Flower of Adansonia madagascariensis

Adansonia rubrostipa

Adansonia rubrostipa is AMAZING!  It truly feels like you walk through a time warp when wandering through the western Anjajavy forests, as if a prehistoric creature will appear behind each turn. And in a way they do, in the shape of these strange old monsters everywhere.

They are also known as the Fony Boabab and have a bottle-shaped trunk with a reddish brown to grey colour, peeling off the whole time. The crown of the tree is irregular and very compact, and reaches a hight of about 20 meters. The flowers are orange to yellow in colour, and will be pollinated by nocturnal lemurs and the long-tongued hawk moth.

Adansonia perrieri

There are another 2 species of boabab that is restricted to the not so dry northern parts of Madagascar. First is the rarest of all the boababs and is called Adansonia perrieri; it only grows in 10 locations in the north of Madagascar, around Diego Suarez. It is definitely the boabab on diet, as its trunk is not at all as thick as its brothers – only about 2 -3 meters in thickness. It has an irregular crown with a flower that is pale yellow to pale orange in colour, and has hairy seed pods around 30 cm long weighing up to a kilogram.

Adansonia suarezensis

Then the last of the boababs occuring in Madagascar is Adansonia suarezensis. The Suarez boabab has a brown-grey cylindrical trunk up to 25 meters high. The palmate leaves of this boabab are yellowish green, and the flowers are large and white in colour, producing a sour scent. What is interresting about this boabab is that the flowers open an hour before dusk and are reproductively receptive for one night only, after which the flower wilts and dies down. The animal responsible for the pollination of the flower is the large fruit bat.

Madagascar is such a special place, filled to the brim with oddities and more yet to be discovered but as with many other places, also has its problems as deforestation is rampant and the habitat for the boababs is being hacked out and fast becoming farm land. The boababs are not being taken out, but new young trees are not allowed to germinate due to the farming around the trees, and also the natural pollinators for the trees are being lost due to habitat loss.

Magnificent boababs

But the majestic boabab is still and will always be a symbol not only for Madagascar but also for Africa, a symbol of longevity, endurance and tolerance, and the place where traditional communal meetings are still held to this day.

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Leon Kluge

About Leon Kluge

Leon Kluge is an award-winning landscape designer who was part of the successful South African team at Chelsea in both 2010 and 2012, and the Gardening World Cup in Japan in 2011, and then won a Gold medal at the 2013 Cup. Leon is known for his modern, contemporary landscapes, sustainable community projects and his specialisation in vertical gardens. His company Leon Kluge Landscape Design is based in north-eastern South Africa.

12 thoughts on “The GREAT baobabs of Madagascar

  1. Your articles are dangerously giving me wander lust again Leon with another story of exotic locations and exotic species. Great to have you sharing stories of locations that inspire us all to put the dog, cat and kids in the local kennel and head off to marvel at these wonders.

    • Thank you, hope the urge to plant travel will get the better of you, I cant stay out of the bush for long, even where I am sitting right now and emailing ,i am in the most amazing sunken forest, surrounded by natural vertical wall gardens, unbelieveable! Will have to share this natural gem also!

  2. Hello Leon
    What a great plant group the boabas are. Your pictures are inspiring of the place. A pity though as it sounds as though these wonderful plants wil become extinct if they are not allowed to germinate in their native habitat.

  3. Yes, It is a very sad situation to watch unfold in madagascar, but what do you say to somebody trying to feed his family that he cannot farm in his area due to the endemic plants and animals occuring in the area, (and nowhere else on earth!!) When it comes to a hungry stomach and your family, nothing else really matters. I wish somebody could come up with a working solution that could bennefit both ways.

  4. Great article Leon. What a magical place you live in. Of course, the beauty and wonder of Madagascar comes with the sadness of deforestation in the name of farming and feeding its people.
    I was interested to learn the role the fruit bats play in the pollinating of these fantastic trees, the boababs. Here in Queensland, Australia, the fruit bat is fast becoming the enemy due to its connection to the spread of the fatal (for humans) equine virus and also their colony numbers are increasing so much, living in their flight path is not nice; those who do must endure lots of smelly, messy droppings. Such a mixed blessing this world gives us.

    • The interesting about the fruit bats is that it is a delicacy in madagascar, it is the weirdest thing, stopping at a stop street and having trays upon trays of freshly cooked fruit bat for sale, as a take away on the way home.
      I must be honest, I have not tried it and doubt that I would, chicken nuggets sounds sooo much better!
      Thus for that reason the fruit bat will never be a problem in madagascar, and will also need protection soon.

      • OMG. Eating fruit bats!!! That is the first time I have heard that. I cant imagine where the meat would be ..wings? legs? They are such bony little critters … a bit like quails. They always look like more hard work than pleasure.

        Wonder how that would go over with the greenies here.

        • Would have been a much cheaper way to get them out of our Sydney Botanic Gardens! They have been there roosting in their thousands for several years, and destroying many old trees and the beautiful Palm Grove. But hopefully they have now (by other non-culinary means) been ‘redistributed’ to other locations where, I believe, they are becoming scarce.

          • I think the fruit bat in madagascar is a bit different to what you have in Australia, these ones are huge, they are called flying foxes, because their faces look very dog like, they are black with yellow brown fur between their wings, the wing span is about 140cm and they weigh about 700grams and the body is about 40cm in length when mature. It’s huge, lots of meat on those bones!

  5. Needing to return to Madagascar to get more info as soon as Life permits but gives me a bit of a lifeline to read your words Leon. Have been painting Baobabs for over 20 years and as for fruit bats, we have thousands fly over at dusk, from their colonies on the banks of the Ord R. in the Kimberley. Never tire of watching their quiet foray to the farms but then I am not a farmer. Our local Boab A.gregorii is far from extinct I am glad to report , have about 40 new ones just came up in my back yard from some mulch ! thanks for your site.

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