Baobab leaves: growing in spring

Glencoe Baobab, Leaves

Glencoe Baobab, Leaves

The days are getting longer and my baobabs enjoy the sunshine on their windowsill in the living room. More daylight and the warmth bring out fresh green baobab leaves. Little tips appear at the ends of the branches. However, it can take a while until the leaves unfold fully.

Baobab sprouting new leaves

Baobab sprouting new leaves

Why do some baobabs in pots keep their leaves in winter?

This year most of my trees kept their leaves from the previous year. Usually they shed them on the onset of their resting phase in autumn. But with baobabs you never know – they seem to have a mind of their own when it comes to how things should be done. Currently I do not have a cooler space where I can keep my baobabs during winter. Therefore they are in a warm place all year round and I still need to water them regularly but with less frequency during winter. That is one of the reasons why they still carry their leaves.

5-digit Baobab leave, Heike Pander

5-digit Baobab leave, Heike Pander

Where do baobabs get new leaves?

In the meantime new leaves on the branches join the old ones. The shoots of last year are still green but not yet completely “woody”. Tiny reddish or greenish hairy spikes indicate where new leaves will appear. At these spots the trees either get new leaves or new branches.

Tip with sprouting baobab leaf, Heike Pander

Tip with sprouting baobab leaf, Heike Pander

Shape of baobab leaves

The leaf shape of the baobabs in pots is quite interesting. Usually, the first round that shows is single leaves which I consider normal. Even the big old trees behave like that. Only the second generation of leaves in one season consists of two, three or even more leaf parts. The five-part variant has prompted researchers to name baobabs Adansonia digitata. The five “limbs” of the leaves to them resembled the fingers of a human hand. The five-finger leaf style is similar to that of chestnut trees and appears mostly on older baobabs. On the other hand, I have seen most interesting variations appear with my baobabs in pots. Only last year did I come across simple leaves, five-part and even seven-part leaves on the same tree at the same time. The latter are rather rare.

Colour of baobab leaves

In healthy trees, the color of the leaves is a strong green, in some even dark green. Freshly emerging leaves are light green, but darken over time. If leaves take on a yellowish tinge they might suffer from different causes.

Different stages of wilting baobab leaves, Heike Pander

Different stages of wilting baobab leaves, Heike Pander

Slow down of baobab metabolism

Normally, baobabs slow down their metabolism in autumn which makes the leaves turn paler. Usually this process starts with yellow while the leave veins stay green longer. The more wilted the leaves become, the more they turn ocher or light brown. During this process they get drier and shrink. At the end of a life cycle, a leaf is dry, thin and breaks into pieces to the touch.

“Sick” tree, “sick” leaves

It might not be easy to tell if the tree follows the seasons once it sheds leaves or whether it suffers from disease or pests. If the latter is the case, one could detect signs of something feeding on the leaves. Collecting those insects from the leaves manually is easily done. Taking care of pests sucking the plant’s saps can be a bit more difficult to deal with – for example spider mites or lice. Spider mites cause little holes in leaves and leave fine threads everywhere. The tiny insects usually sit on the bottom side of the leaves and one can identify them as moving whitish or gray spots. Affected leaves turn yellowish in a more advanced stage of infestation.

Treatment of infected trees needed

In the case of heavy infestation, the leaves curl up and turn brown. This can damage the whole plant severely and may lead to its death if no steps are taken to cure it. Since spider mites do not like moisture and spread mainly in the dry and hot season (either in hot summers or with trees on the windowsill in rooms with central heating), showering the trees repeatedly with water often helps. After a shower of this kind the pot needs to dry well as baobabs are prone to root rot.

Baobab leaves indicating root rot, Heike Pander

Baobab leaves indicating root rot, Heike Pander

Root rot can be seen on baobab leaves

At a later stage the results of root rot can be seen on the leaves, too. Unlike the regular coloration of leaves in autumn, they get spots of a darker brown, may shrink and fall off. Sometimes only the leaf tips get dark brown and dry. If one of the baobabs has caught root rot it needs to be isolated from the other trees and taken out of the pot. Either replant the baobab in a new pot or clean the old pot thoroughly and replant in new soil. But before replanting the baobab, make sure to remove affected parts completely.

Baobab tap root, a few months old, Heike Pander

Baobab tap root, a few months old, Heike Pander

After a treatment like this the tree stands a chance to survive. Small baobabs have more problems to survive root rot as they do not have much root to cut yet. In any case it is best if root rot does not occur at all. Make sure that the soil has good water drainage and water baobabs reasonably. The best choice of soil is either a mixture of soil and river sand or ready-made cactus soil.

Little Baobab, germinated from seed in the wild

Little Baobab, germinated from seed in the wild

Watering baobabs properly

Rainwater is the best option for watering baobabs because it is often less calcareous than tap water. The amount of water needed is an estimation. Usually, I pour about 300 to 400 milliliters in a pot of approximately 24 centimeters in diameter. If water collects in the drip tray below I pour it out. As a matter of fact I do not water again before the soil in the pot is dry. An easy method to check this is by poking a finger into the ground. If the soil feels dry around the roots the tree needs water.

Baobab Seedlings 2016

Baobab Seedlings 2016

Growing baobab leaves faster

If you feel that the leaves take too long to come out in February / March, you can apply a simple trick. If your baobab has spent the winter months in a cool place take it to a warm spot and let the soil in the pot dry. Then pour a good load of water into the pot, let it drain properly and put the pot in a sunny spot. Baobabs love windows on the southern side of a room. Water and warmth in spring serve as impulse – like in nature – that the “rainy season” and with it the season of growth has arrived.

Baobab, Kruger Nursery, Kruger NP, South Africa

Baobab, Kruger Nursery, Kruger NP, South Africa

Baobab leaves in the wild

The best spot to observe baobab behavior is in the wild. The trees sprout their leaves before the rainy season arrives. Sometimes days or even weeks beforehand. They tab into the stored water in their trunks, roots and branches to support the new leaves. Leaves are important for the baobabs during the rainy season as they help the trees to survive heavy downpours and collecting water around the stems/roots. In addition, it allows the trees to refill their storage and to absorb as much water as possible. As a nice side effect: the trees do not have to remain in water for too long which prevents them from catching root rot.

Baobab South of Satara, Kruger NP, South Africa

Baobab South of Satara, Kruger NP, South Africa

Why do baobabs drop their leaves?

After the rainy season, baobabs drop their leaves. Not a drop of the vital water should be lost and leaves need lots of water. On average, baobabs bear their leaves for around three to four months. Most of the year they are seen “without” in the savannas and their bare branches point high into the sky. The bizarre view has earned them the name “Upside Down Tree” as the branches look like roots sticking out in different angles. It goes without saying that numerous myths surround the baobab. The most beautiful one is an explanation about why the baobab looks the way it does.

Baobab Fruit

Baobab Fruit

Baobabs extract water from fruit

The baobab does not only drop leaves to safe water. It has a mechanism that withdraws water from the fruit during the ripening process. The water is returned to its own water cycle. In the end, the fruits leave the tree when they are ripe. Again, not a drop should be wasted. As a result the fruits do not have juicy flesh like apples or oranges but dry fruit powder. After harvesting of the fruit the powder is sieved and thus separated from the seeds. It is packed into bags and sold as baobab fruit powder.

Baobab Fruit, Planet Baobab

Baobab Fruit, Planet Baobab

A baobab does not rest

During the dry season, the baobab reduces its metabolism, it does not “shut down” completely like beech or oak trees in Europe. Its survival of the dry phase depends on the stored water in special cells of the trunk, branches and roots. Not only baobabs benefit from that. Humans and animals alike use them as a living water source in some regions of Africa. However, storing water brings a disadvantage, too: baobabs cannot tolerate frost. They freeze to death like succulents would. That is why the frost line is limiting the natural distribution of the baobabs.

Baobab flower buds

Baobab flower buds

Baobabs in their annual life cycle

To me the fact that my baobabs behave like all deciduous trees in Europe is fascinating. As soon as the days get longer and the temperatures rise, they sprout their leaves. I find it a little “crazy” that my baobabs adapt to the European annual cycle, even though they come from the southern hemisphere. During our spring time their natural habitat is ready for fall and the trees should actually drop their leaves. I assume that the more intense daylight, the longer brightness and the rising temperatures motivate the trees to adjust their behavior.

Baobab Leaves, Window Sill

Baobab Leaves, Window Sill

Is your baobab well & happy?

A sure sign that the little baobab is doing well is a light green-gray shimmer on the trunk and the branches. Light green can always be seen on fresh shoots under the top cell layer. But even if the bark gets a little thicker, a light green-gray shimmer is visible. The green layer is made of chlorophyll. These are cells that help the tree produce its food. The tree can survive without the leaves. But they help it to absorb as much water as possible during the rainy season.

Baobab Flower

Baobab Flower

When do baobabs flower?

In addition, reproduction of baobabs falls into the rainy season. The trees produce flowers and start to bloom about four weeks after the leaves appear. With the flowers fully open pollination can take place. Once the rainy season is over the trees drop their leaves. Meanwhile the fruit grow on the tree. They are ready for harvesting at the height of the dry season. If you grow baobabs in pots it might take them a very long time to flower – and maybe they never will. So far, I have only seen baobabs in flower in the wild.

Baobab, Sagole Big Tree

Baobab, Sagole Big Tree

Baobab resting phase

From autumn in Europe, when the days get shorter, baobabs should be kept in bright and cool places at around 16 ° C. A winter garden is very suitable for this. Under no circumstances should they be kept in unheated greenhouses or on a terrace during winter. They do not tolerate frost. During their resting phase, baobabs reduce their metabolism and can live without leaves. During this phase they need less water. But not everyone has options to keep baobabs in a cooler place. They can make it on the windowsill all year long – but need less water during winter anyhow.

Clay Cone for watering

How to water your baobab during vacation

Baobabs are frugal contemporaries who need little nutrients and relatively little water. Only in very hot summers do I have to water them about every three to four days. But what happens if I can’t water them at all for example when I am off travelling? I take cones with small hosees from a garden center or specialized store. First I put the clay cones in cold water until they are soaked. Then I fill them with water, put the cap with the hose on each of the cones. For normal-sized pots I use one clay cone and stick it into the earth near the roots. Then I put the other end of the little hose into a container or bucket that I have filled with water.

Baobabs, watering system in place

Avoid flooding

The container should, if possible, be at the same height or better below the roots of the baobab. Otherwise the tree pulls too much water and can cause flooding. This method works for several weeks and guarantees that the plant survives my absence. The bucket has to be big enough tough. I have used the clay cones for many years successfully with my baobabs.

Can one eat baobab leaves?

Yes – and they taste lovely raw in a salad or cooked. In some of their areas of origin, people prepare a kind of spinach from young fresh leaves. When cooked, the leaves tend to draw threads which people like best. The older leaves are a little too hard and therefore do not make a good ingredient for spinach or salad. Traditional medicine uses baobab leaves, too. Science has confirmed that they have an antipyretic effect. Therefore traditional health pracititioners use them in combination with other herbs to treat malaria.

22 Replies to “Baobab leaves: growing in spring”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article and I am enjoying the entire website! Thanks so much for spreading the word on these wonderful trees!

    • Thank you Nigel, for your positive comment on this article and the entire website – it is well received on this end and appreciated. All the best & stay safe – Heike

      • Btw, Nigel is a bonsai YouTuber with more than 100.000 subscribers, so feel honoured. He’s currently germinating baobabs to turn them into bonsais

  2. Great information,
    So glad i came across this article.
    I have two very little baobab trees from seeds just coming up from the soil, its now about two weeks that the seed is still on the top of the little seedlings and its not allowing the leaves to open…i would like to ask please for your opinion,is this normal? Does it actually take that long to drop the seed and open up the leaves…or is there something wrong and it’s not growing well ..no strength to do so? Thank you very much in advance for any information .

    • Hi there, sorry to hear that the leaves of your baobabs have trouble opening. Fact is: it is very hard for them to break free from the shells! I therefore created the little video explaining how to peel the hard seed coat off. See video here: https://vimeo.com/292943864; it is very difficult to remove the shells after the leaves have opened and the shells might stick there for longer. What I did in those cases: I waited until the next generation of leaves shows up – which the trees will do quickly. Maybe you could monitor and get back to me if nothing has changed in two weeks time from now. If you are keen to remove the seed coats – you could wrap them tight with a plastic foil that they get softer and then carefully remove them. But you’ve got to be aware that you might ruin the leaf completely in doing so. I’d therefore rather wait until the tree produces new leaves. All the best to you & your baobabs. Kind regards, Heike

  3. Hello
    Just looking for some advice please. My Balkan did so very well before the winter and I took advice from your articles looking after it but all of a sudden it has grown very pale leaves which are curling and have Brown patches! I have fed it as suggested and tried to not overwater, I even replaced with new cacti compost as suggested by another site. Please help its really worrying I would hate to lose it I’ve only had it for a year and it’s only now 3 years old! Can it be saved?
    Best regards
    Barbara

  4. Hello
    Just looking for some advice please. My Baobab did so very well before the winter and I took advice from your articles looking after it but all of a sudden it has grown very pale leaves which are curling and have Brown patches! I have fed it as suggested and tried to not overwater, I even replaced with new cacti compost as suggested by another site. Please help its really worrying I would hate to lose it I’ve only had it for a year and it’s only now 3 years old! Can it be saved?
    Best regards
    Barbara

  5. Hi Heike
    Thanks for this very interesting site. I have a few seeds and was going to plant them under a grow lamp but having read your article will wait until springtime, September in Australia. We do get frosts so these weenplamts will have to remain potted and in the house during winter.

    • Hi Jenny, thank you very much for your positive comment- it is very much appreciated on this end! Yes, if you get frosts it is advisable to grow the baobabs in pots and take them to a protected spot during wintertime. If you’d like to try you could use growth lamps. I do not have much experience with those because I really prefer to grow baobabs in summer under the conditions that prevail during that period. So far the baobabs and I have managed fine… Good luck with your baobab project and – if you like – let me know about progress once you get started… All the best, Heike

  6. My tree is still small, about t-3 feet, but by next year I fear I will have to start reducing its size. How do you go about pruning it. I know some people simply chop it down from the growth of last year. I was wondering if you have any suggestions on how low to go and what time of year you usually do it. I live in a cold climate, colorado, usa, so my baobob will only ever be in a pot. Any help is much appreciated and thank you for your website, it is very insightful and intuitive.

    Nick

    • Dear Stephen, thank you for getting in touch and for your question regarding pruning. Where to cut it mainly depends on what you plan to do with your baobab. If you want to shape it into a bonsai you’d have to follow those rules. If you just want to make sure that it does not outgrow your room where you keep it, it is up to you – you decide how tall your baobab shall grow. The time of the year: any time. If I have to cut my baobabs I usually wait until fall when they start their dormancy phase and loose their leaves… If you intend to grow new baobabs from the cuttings it helps if they still have leaves left – that would be in summer. Hope that helps. Good luck to you and your baobab. Kind regards, Heike

  7. Noobie trying to understand his tree, needing help: my baobab leave, from the bottom part are getting yellow in spots from the exterior of the leaves to the interior. The leaves on the middle of the tree are wrinkley on the outside (look like some sea waves). Do you have any idea why is this or when can I more info? I would love to understand my tree and make sure he is happy.

    thx

  8. Hi Heike, I have 2 Baobab trees that are 4 years old and they both have been doing well until this summer ( Australia ). We have had a fairly wet spring and summer and my trees were slow to sprout new leaves, and when they did they stopped growing at about 15mm in length, and that is as big as they have got so far. I also have 3 cuttings from them that have sprouted leaves as well, but the same as the mother trees. They are in sun for 12 hours a day and don’t have water trays under them, I’m sure their still alive as the 2 older ones look to have increased their girth.. Any ideas of what is happening with. On a side note my Queensland Bottle tree had lost all it’s leaves mid summer, and it is now with a full canopy of lush new leaves, it’s 15 years old and I have never seen it do that before. Kind Regards Alan,

    • Hi Alan, thank you for getting in touch. Well, I hope you understand that it is very difficult to diagnose from far. Sometimes the baobabs I take care of drop their leaves in fall, sometimes they keep them until spring and immediately exchange the old leaves for the new ones. Sometimes they start getting leaves in February, sometimes they take their time and wait until may. As several factors influence their “behaviour” it is not easy to say what is going on. Did you ever repot your baobabs into new soil? Maybe they are lacking nutrients in the ground. Maybe their soil got too wet during spring and they developed root rot – which can go on for a long time until one notices. Maybe it was too cold in spring for their liking – if it rained a lot I suspect temperatures were lower than usual… Did you check for pests in the soil? There are some larvae of insects around that feed on the roots of baobabs. The list of possibilities could go on. My suggestion at this point would be that you check if all is fine with the roots. If you have not repottet in a while you may consider giving the trees some new soil or at least some furtilizer. If you do not detect root rot or pests getting to the roots my suggestion would further be that you keep an eye on the trees for new developments and do not water them too much. Let the soil dry out after giving water. Rewater only if soil was dry. Check that by poking your finger next to the roots into the soil. If it feels dry, rewater. Good luck & all the best to you & your baobabs! Heike

      • Hi Heike, Thanks for the reply and sorry for my late coming reply.. I forgot where this link was LOL. Anyhow, the trees have only been in their pots for less than 2 years and it was fresh store bought Bonsai mix, we have had a lot more rain than usual and yes our temps have been way down.. less than 30*c most days. They are still hanging in there and as it is coming into our Autumn & winter seasons I don’t expect too much from them now. There could be some Curl Grubs attacking the roots, but it seems strange that all the trees are doing the same thing. I did dig down a bit to see if I could see any sign of grubs, but didn’t want to go too deep so as not to upset them even more. Come winter I think I’ll unpot one of them and see whats going on in there. do you think I should put my Baobabs under cover from rain so I know how much water they are getting?. On a side note, my in ground 14 year old Queensland Bottle tree lost all it’s leafs early to mid Summer and was completely re covered a couple of weeks later.. that had me worried, it’s trunk is 700mm + across.. Kind Regards Alan.

        • Hi Alan, thank you for getting in touch & sorry for the delay in my response. I cannot give you any advice on the Queensland Bottle tree- sorry for that. With respect to your baobabs – they may have gotten too much water. Inbetween watering phases the soil needs to get a chance to get dry. Otherwise the trees may catch root rot. This can show in “hanging leaves” and/or soft stems. It could be helpful to place the baobabs in a spot where you have better control over the amount of water they get. Or you make sure that you take them out of rainy conditions if the rains are heavy and/or continue for more than a day. In order to make sure whether they suffer from root rot the only option is to take them out of the pots and check the roots. If they have soft spots and/or are sludgy they have root rot – most likely. Then you can try to cut out the affected spot and repot the tree into a new/clean pot with new soil. Hope this helps. Kind regards & good luck, Heike

  9. Hey Heike!

    I love your guide, it’s the most comprehensive one I have found so far!
    I currently own 3 baobab trees that have grown from seed about 5 years ago. They are already quite tall, and have a few side branches. I was wondering, when can I expect them to start flowering/fruiting, and does the size of the pot matter?

    I’ts also fascinating how they have all come from the same fruit, yet they have vastly different leaf structures and ‘body types’. In any case, I’m really happy that I’ve managed to keep this rare species alive for so long and I hope I’ll get to pass these trees onto the next generation 🙂

    • Hi Isa, thank you for getting in touch and for your kind words of appreciation. What exactly do you mean with “they are already quite tall”? Actually, depending on where the seeds come from – it may take many years for baobabs to flower and bear fruit. In some regions it takes 10 to 15 years, in other regions 20 to 25 years and in some regions it may take up to 200 years. With baobabs in pots it may be quite unlikely that they grow fruit at all. I have not heard of baobabs in pots growing fruit so far. All the best to you and your trees! Heike

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