The sun slowly disappears like a red fireball on the horizon and baobabs cast long shadows. Night falls in the land of the giants. High time for all the nocturnal creatures of this world – including baobab – to become active.
Spectacular Baobab Flowers
The trees come with a specific feature: Their FLOWERS open at NIGHT! The opening of the flower buds usually starts in the late afternoon or around sunset. The buds are green on the outside and hang like pendulums from the tree – similar to the fruit that develop later. First, the outer shell of the buds rolls up towards the stalks.
Baobab Flower Petals open in seconds
Slowly the white petals of the calyx appear from their tight sheath. Gradually the pistil (corolla tube) shows. It is slightly longer than the petals. All attention needs to be directed to the flower: once it is ready, the petals unfold within seconds – almost as one would open an umbrella! A fantastic sight. Thereafter, the inside of the flower with the stamen is visible.
Each Baobab has own flower rhythm
Apparently, every tree has its own rhythm, in which it opens the petals. Some are very fast and need only up to 30 minutes to open – others need two hours and more. The tree I watched belongs to the latter category and was more of a “late bloomer”. Not later than the next morning the flowers are fully open.
Baobabs can grow hundreds of flower buds
Large, old baobabs can carry hundreds of flower buds. Not all open on the same day – but the ones which do open do this almost in sync – as if the tree gives a silent sign. Whether a bud opens in the evening can be seen in the afternoon – the buds swell and show a gap on their bottom side.
Baobabs are pollinated by insects
At the beginning of the opening phase, insects are busy visiting the flowers. In Zimbabwe, rose beetles can be found either enjoying nectar or nibbling the white petals. In the Venda area in Limpopo / South Africa Hawkmoth were attracted to the flowers – there they help with pollination. In other areas, bats and Bush Babies pollinate the flowers.
Baobab scent is different
If one is to expect lovely fragrances of the flowers resembling that of roses or jasmine one could be disappointed. Baobab flowers exude a rather tart smell, which can be intense depending on the stage of blooming. Some compare it to the smell of carrion. I do not share this view. On my last visit to the Kruger National Park I came by a dead hippopotamus and the smell of it differed essentially from that of baobab flowers.
Baobabs flower in the rainy season
Shortly before or at the onset of the rainy season baobabs grow their leaves. Almost simultaneously the flower buds occur. About four weeks later the trees start to bloom. Most baobabs flower once a year. On the Ivory Coast, trees were observed to flower twice a year and grow fruit twice a year as well. Some baobabs do not have flowers/fruit every year.
The rainy season in Southern Africa starts around November and carries on into January. The flowering period of baobabs depends on several factors: whether the rainy season is on time, length and intensity of rainfall, altitude where the trees grow and the composition of the soils (water content).
Baobab flowers have a life cycle of one day
On average, baobabs start to flower and bear fruit at the age of about 20 years. Significant regional differences occur: In West Africa trees are said to flower at the age of eight to ten years for the first time, in Southern Africa above 20 years.
Depending on the area where the baobab grows, a baobab flower can be pollinated only for about 12 – 18 hours. In the early morning of the next day the flowers might still look pretty – but start to wilt quickly, depending on the location and prevailing temperatures. In this process the petals turn brown, slide down the pistils and fall to the ground. Goats and cattle feed on them. Within 24 hours, a flowering cycle from opening of the flower buds until the withering of the flower is completed.