The Baobab (or the more fun way to say it, Baobá, in Portuguese) is a tree of African origin which happens to live for between one and six thousand years and is found abundantly in Madagasgar. It has been called the tree of life because in the savannahs of Africa the largest ones are known to hold up to 120,000 liters of water (which are used to hold rain water for the local population). In Senegal, these trees are the inspiration for many legends, rites and practices. In the late 1500s, the Dutch occupied part of modern-day Senegal and this is possibly the origin of the baobab you’ll read about below (pictured above), in the middle of Recife.
They were brought as seeds to Brazil by African priests, who came as slaves, and it could be said these big and strong trees in a way represent the resistance against slavery (though, as mentioned, they have a spiritual significance, too). Like the African communities themselves, the baobabs ended up taking root in Brazil.
More than half of Brazil’s baobabs can be found in the state of Pernambuco, where 115 have been catalogued.
The Little Prince
As for Recife, the baobab in the Praça da República (near the Santa Isabel Theater), in the Santo Antônio neighborhood, goes back to the times of Maurício de Nassau during the Dutch occupation. In fact, that very tree was said to have inspired French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry when he passed through Recife while writing The Little Prince, known as O Pequeno Príncipe in Brazil, where it became very popular.
(In the second of the two videos below, Regina Casé says the baobab that inspired The Little Prince is actually in Natal, but that’s the only time I heard Natal being referenced over Recife.)
“Ora, havia sementes terríveis no planeta do principezinho: as sementes de baobá… O solo do planeta estava enfestado. E um baobá, se a gente custa a descobri-lo, nunca mais se livra dele. Atravanca todo o planeta. Perfura-o com suas raízes. E se o planeta é pequeno e os baobás numerosos, o planeta acaba rachando”. (O Pequeno Príncipe).
“Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces . . .” (The Little Prince).
The Garden of Baobabs
In 2008, Antônio Campos, one of the curators of Fliporto (Pernambuco’s literary festival) started an ecological project aimed at bringing awareness to the trees and in 2011, at Fliporto, he showed off “Pernambuco, Jardim dos Baobás“, a project which found and photographed over 100 of the state’s baobabs. Along with the virtual tour shown on the site, there was a DVD made and an ebook (but I can’t locate either).
This October, the Recife Tourism office sponsored a few free ‘Baobab Circuit’ tours, covering 6 locations in and around Recife. Unfortunately, I missed their announcements and therefore wasn’t able to mention it here, but I did find an relevant episode of a Brazilian TV show about Brazilian flora which you can see below. Be forewarned that it focuses on the African origins.