Guide to the Baobab
The Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is one of Africa’s best-known and most iconic tree species. Widely distributed across the continent and celebrated in folklore and legend for its mythical healing properties, the tree has special significance to people throughout Africa. Famed for its ability to survive in the harshest of conditions, and notable for its extraordinary size and fantastical shape, the Baobab has recently acquired notoriety for the incredible nutritional values of its fruit, and the potent skincare properties of its oil.
In many African cultures, the Baobab is called “the Upside Down” tree, deriving from the myth that the trees were thrown down to earth by the gods and landed in the ground upside down with their roots in the air. Other cultures call it the “Tree of Life”, because of its pivotal role in the ecosystem and the fact that so many other plants and creatures (birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and, of course, humans) depend on it for their own survival. Baobabs existed in Africa when Homo sapiens first evolved, and our relationship to these trees goes back further and deeper than with almost any other tree species. It is, truly, a remarkable tree.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Baobab tree is its ability to survive in the very harsh, semi-desert conditions that are found in many parts of Africa. In these areas, the income from sale of Baobab fruit is especially important to local communities, because of the relative lack of alternative economic opportunities. Baobabs not only provide food, medicine, shade and shelter; they also provide much-needed cash inflows to rural households, to help cover a wide range of basic human needs.
The two main products of commercial importance from sustainably harvested Baobab fruit are Baobab fruit powder and Baobab seed oil.
The Baobab fruit has a hard, woody outer shell. Contained within are many seeds, each one coated in a rich, white powder that is the “pulp” of the fruit. Because the tree grows in very dry conditions, this pulp is naturally dry.
Traditionally, the powder-coated seeds are soaked in milk or water until the powder separates from the seed and dissolves into the liquid, creating a thick, creamy and very refreshing beverage. In some African countries, the powder is separated from the seed using a traditional pestle and mortar, and is then added to porridge, or mixed into soups and other foods. Today, the powder is separated from the seed using modern industrial technology, before being milled and sieved to produce the fine, white powder that is marketed throughout the world as “Baobab Fruit Powder”.
The powder is fabled throughout Africa for its exceptional nutritional properties, and is a favourite food during the winter months when the fruit are harvested. In addition to being an important food, the powder is often mixed into a medicinal beverage, said to strengthen immune systems, prevent colds and fever, settle troubled digestive systems and restore vigour and energy to the patient. The powder is also used by endurance athletes to give them strength and vitality.
For more information on the health benefits of Baobab fruit powder, see here.
The Baobab seeds, once they have been separated from the powder (either using traditional pestle and mortar or modern milling methods) contain very small quantities of a rich, golden oil. This oil is traditionally used for moisturising sun-dried skin and, in some countries, has also been consumed as a food oil. Because of the low yields, it is an expensive oil to produce, but its exceptional moisturising properties make it a rare and highly valued oil for a variety of skin and hair care applications.
Scientists have discovered a number of key benefits associated with regular use of Baobab oil in skincare. Foremost amongst these is its ability to reduce Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL), preventing the skin from drying it and keeping it hydrated and moisturised. Baobab oil also exhibits significant activity as an occlusivity agent, preventing evaporation of the skin’s internal water, and preventing topical ingredients from penetrating the skin’s barrier.
Today, Baobab oil is either sold in its pure form as a moisturising oil, or as an ingredient in more complex skincare formulations. It has a naturally nutty odour and a rich, velvety texture that keeps the skin moisturised for hours.