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Friday Eco-fact: Australia’s Incredible Boab Trees

For a land known for its lack of trees, Australia actually has an incredible variety of fascinating trees that come in all shapes and sizes.  However, there is probably no species of tree in Australia quite as unusual then the Australian Boab Tree:

In fact these fat trees with their ugly tentacle like branches reaching towards the sky are so unusual that the local Aborigines believed that the was planted upside down by the Gods.  The first European explorers that saw the boabs thought they were diseased.  This is obviously one unusual tree.

The boab tree isn’t just native to Australia, but can also be found in Africa and Madagascar where they are called baobab trees, but just like many other names in Australia the locals shortened the name to boabs.  In Australia it is only found in the Kimberly region of the state of Western Australia and a few that stretch across the border into the Northern Territory.  These trees thrive in this area because of the seasonal wet and dry seasons that allow the boabs to survive.

These trees need large amounts of water to survive and when the wet season hits the Kimberly the boabs suck up as much water as possible into their sponge like trunks which causes them to have such a fat appearance.  During the long dry season the boabs survive off their stored water and unlike deciduous trees that shed their leaves in the winter, boabs shed their leaves during the summer dry spell.  At the end of the dry season the boab sprouts flowers that bloom only at night and close at sunrise.  These flowers eventually bloom into large seed nuts that break apart off the tree to spread their seeds which the Aborigines would use to carve works of art on:

Because of its seasonal changes the Aborigines called the boab “The Calendar Tree” because they could track the different seasons in the Kimberly because of them.  The boabs had many uses for the local Aborigines besides telling the seasons; their nuts were used as a food source and the fibers of the boabs trunk was sucked on to draw out its moisture for the Aborigines to drink during times of drought.  Sometimes water could even be made to flow out of the tree if the trunk is drilled in the right place.  Early European explorers even found use for the boab by boiling its nuts and making a jam from them in order to prevent scurvy outbreaks.

Look closely and you can see the inscription in this boab tree.

Besides being used as a food and water source the boab was also used as meeting places and message boards by the Aborigines.  Individual trees were so large and unusual they were easy navigational markers for people to meet up at.  European explorers began to do the same thing and leave messages on the trees.  For example in 1820, a British ship the Mermaid beached for repairs on the Kimberly coast and the captain of the ship, Phillip Parker King carved the inscription HMC Mermaid 1820 into a nearby boab tree to mark where they landed.  The inscription still remains to this day and the tree has grown in that time from a girth of 8.8 meters to 12.2 meters today.  Amazingly some of the boabs in Australia have been measured to a girth of 20 meters.  Visitors to the Kimberly to this day can still find a variety of boab trees with old messages carved in them by pioneers marking trees for navigation or even spots where supplies were buried.

Probably the most unusual use for a boab was as a jail.  The Boab Prison Tree outside the Kimberly town of Wyndham had a large opening at its base, burned out by bushfires.  This opening was large enough for people walk into and it wasn’t long before some of the early pioneer figured out that this tree would be a great place to imprison people in:

This tree like many of the older boab trees in the Kimberly is over 1,500 years old making the tree the oldest living thing in Australia.  This is just all further evidence of why the boab is not just Australia’s most unusual tree, but one of its most incredible as well.