Madagascar’s Upside-Down Trees

(Photo credit: Gil.K/Shutterstock)

Madagascar is home to six of the world’s eight species of baobab trees. (Photo credit: Gil.K/Shutterstock)

The baobab is a tree with an unusual look. Many compare its appearance to a tree planted upside-down, as it looks like its roots are reaching toward the sky. According to folklore, when the gods planted baobab trees, the trees kept walking away, so they planted them upside-down into the ground to make them stay in one place.

Baobab trees are the largest succulents in the world. They are slow-growing, long-lived trees that can continue to flourish for thousands of years, often reaching 25 meters in height with circumferences of nearly 30 meters. They have gigantic, stocky trunks with thick and tapering branches that look like roots. While they remain leafless for nine months of the year, when leaves appear they are the size of an adult human hand and contain 5-7 fingerlike leaflets. In the afternoon, the leaves sprout large white flowers that are pollinated by fruit bats.

The baobab is useful to humans in many ways. The tree’s thick bark is used to make cloth and rope. The leaves are used as condiments and in medicinal preparations. The fruit, called “monkey bread” due to its popularity as a food source with monkeys, is used to make a refreshing drink similar to lemonade. The massive size of the baobab tree has led some people to use it in unusual ways. The hollow stems have been used as homes, barns, bus stops, and even as a prison. Hollow cavities also have been used as water reservoirs during the rainy season.

The baobab is endemic to the savannas of Africa and India and is most commonly found growing in equatorial regions. There are eight different species of baobab trees. Madagascar, an island nation located off the eastern coast of Africa, is home to six of these species, three of which are threatened with extinction. According to research recently published in the journal Biological Conservation, two of Madagascar’s native baobab trees will lose much of their habitat within the next 70 years as a result of climate change and human development.

The Madagascar government is beginning to take measurements to protect the baobab tree. In recent years, the country has launched a number of conservation and reforestation projects and designated several regions of the country that contain baobab trees as national parks. Communities are also given management rights of the lands harboring baobab trees as a way to increase the locals’ stake in the future of their community’s forests. Nurseries also have been established to grow seedlings and programs have been initiated to provide schoolchildren with the chance to plant and care for baobab seedlings. Given that Madagascar is a popular ecotourism destination, protecting the environment is also key to drawing in visitors (and their significant contributions to the country’s economy).

Country: Madagascar

Location: Madagascar is located in southern Africa; it is an island in the Indian Ocean located east of Mozambique.

Area: 587,041 sq km (land and water) (slightly less than double the size of Arizona)

Climate: Madagascar’s climate is tropical along the coastlines, temperate inland, and arid in the south.

Terrain: The terrain of Madagascar includes high plateaus and mountains in the island’s center and narrow coastal plains.

Natural Resources: Chromite, coal, bauxite, fish, graphite, hydropower, mica, quartz, rare earth elements, salt, semiprecious stones, tar sands

Economics: $22.03 billion (est. 2013)

Environmental Issues: Waterborne diseases, desertification, poaching, overfishing, overgrazing, deforestation.

Source: CIA – The World Factbook (

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