I find myself extremely fortunate to live so close by nature’s biggest wonderland – Madagascar! There is no place more strange, more unique, and best of all more exciting for plant and animal lovers seeking an adventure rival to none.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!
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.
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 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, 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.