Raising Giants – Baobabs at The Kampong

By Larry Schokman, Director Emeritus, The Kampong

When describing a botanical garden’s living collection as priceless, it is meant in the truest sense of the word. The plants that comprise the living collection at The Kampong transcend monetary value. They are, after all, a living collection that represent eons of evolutionary change.

One of the most prized collections at The Kampong is the genus Adansonia[1] commonly known as baobab. There are only eight species in this genus and The Kampong has six of them (not many botanical gardens can make this claim!). Of the eight, six are endemic to Madagascar, the center of baobab diversity. Adansonia digitata is from sub-Saharan Africa and A. gregorii is native to arid Northwest Australia.  A possible ninth species (A. kilima) in Africa has not yet been positively identified.

The Kampong Baobab Collection

The Kampong’s collection includes a 22-foot tall A. madagascariensis (the only red-flowering baobab) and A. rubrostipa whose swollen trunk will eventually assume the distinctive bottle shape for which baobabs are known. With the exception of A. digitata, all trees are less than 15 years old.

The name baobab can be traced back to the fruit markets of 16th century Cairo and was probably derived from the Arabic bu hibab meaning “many seeded fruit.” Carl Linnaeus, considered the father of modern taxonomy, named the genus Adansonia in honor of French botanist Michael Adanson, the first person to describe the tree (1757), calling it the “calabash tree.”

Within The Kampong’s collection, Adansonia digitata is the largest and imbued with greatest historical significance. The seed of this antediluvian giant was collected by Dr. David Fairchild in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on April 9, 1928 and planted at the USDA Chapman Field in Miami where it stood until it was blown down by Hurricane Cleo on August 29, 1964.

When The Kampong’s previous owner and “savior” Catherine Hauberg Sweeney[2] heard this fallen tree was scheduled to be destroyed, she offered to rescue and plant it at The Kampong. Transplanting this magnificent specimen was a horticultural success and was likely the first time a mature baobab of this size had been transplanted.

Withstanding the Test of Time

In time this giant baobab reestablished itself on the grounds of The Kampong until some five decades later it was knocked down for a second time when Hurricane Wilma[3] blasted The Kampong on October 24, 2005.

After I sent out an urgent appeal (as Director of The Kampong at that time), to our Board, Fellows, Members, and many neighbors and well-wishers, they responded with generosity beyond our wildest expectations. Their kind support took care of post-hurricane needs as well as the replanting of our fallen baobab which, without our supporters, might not have survived.

Time was of the essence if we were going to save this enormous tree that was lying like a wounded elephant sprawled from The Kampong into the adjacent Hissar property with the majority of its roots dangerously exposed to harsh sunlight. Using a backhoe and two agile tree climbers, in what was truly an “all hands on deck” effort, Kampong staff and volunteers cleaned up debris, pruned back damaged branches, and propped up the tree with the aid of the largest crane we could squeeze into The Kampong.

Once upright, we used four cables to anchor the baobab to neighboring trees. The large new hole in which the tree now stood was filled with decayed organic matter in order to persuade this shallow-rooted tree to anchor its roots firmly in the ground, and (hopefully) survive the wrath of future hurricanes. This may be the only baobab to have been transplanted in two different locations on two separate occasions. The two icons of The Kampong, Dr. David Fairchild and Dr. Catherine Sweeney, were intertwined in the history of this tree — quite an extraordinary coincidence.

In their natural habitats where they are not subject to hurricanes, the root systems of large baobabs run along the surface of the soil, rarely descending more than six feet below ground level. This adaptation, common to most succulents, allows the tree to take advantage of even the lightest precipitation, which is key to their survival in arid climes. It’s also why the growth rates of these huge trees can vary quite dramatically in areas of higher rainfall.

The swollen trunks of these succulent plants suddenly narrow just below the branch canopy, giving baobabs their bottle-shaped appearance. During winter, the leafless branches look like roots, earning the nickname “upside down tree.”

The original supposition was that baobabs store large amounts of water in their spongy trunks (up to 80 percent) for use during times of drought. Recent studies, however, refute this.

Apparently the large amount of water stored in its spongy tissue is specifically used for structural stability. If the water in their trunks were to drop below a certain point, the entire tree would collapse under the weight of its canopy. This is why they shed their leaves during dry periods. Reduced photosynthesis means diminished respiration.

The largest of The Kampong baobabs (A. digitata) used to shed its leaves in the winter for eight to ten weeks but now, because of the heavy mulching, it sheds its leaves for half that period of time. It also fruits more prolifically than before it was replanted, even though we do not have the specific animal pollinators from its native habitat.

Hurricane Irma

On September 10th, 2017, the 400-mile wide Category 5 monster Hurricane Irma tore into Florida’s Cudjoe Key with winds of 150 mph. The eye of the storm was 25 miles wide (the largest hurricane recorded in the Atlantic). By the time the outer bands of the northeast quadrant (the most destructive part of the hurricane) hit Miami, it was barely a Category 1 with sustained winds of up to 80 mph that lasted almost 12 hours. The Kampong received a mere four inches of rain during that time. The extravagance of nature’s savagery was compounded by multiple mini-tornadoes accompanying these winds.

One can only imagine the catastrophic impact that might have occurred if Miami had received a direct hit from that Category 5 hurricane with sustained wind speeds of 185 mph. We dodged the proverbial bullet.

The Kampong suffered considerable damage to its living collection even though the buildings were unscathed. Down went our giant baobab for the third time because of the domino effect of falling trees. The other Adansonia spp. are leafless but remain upright. The Kampong’s Director Craig Morell is making urgent preparations to prop up the giant baobab, as well as all other fallen trees on the property. The top one-third of its extensive canopy will be trimmed before it is uprighted. This operation will make the baobab lighter and make it less susceptible to storm damage. Regular, judicious pruning will prevent this tree from being blown down again.

[1] The genus Adansonia was originally in the Bombacaceae, but molecular studies have resulted in reassigning it to the sub-family Bombacoidae in the family Malvaceae (Mallow family)

[2] Catherine H. Sweeney purchased The Kampong in 1963 and donated it what was then known as the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden. As a result, PTBG’s name was changed to National Tropical Botanical Garden by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1988

[3] In 2005, The Kampong was also impacted by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita

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