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It's no exaggeration to say that humanity was born in the shade of a baobab tree. No doubt our ancestors enjoyed the bounty of the iconic baobab long before we humans even evolved. In the hot sun of the African savannah, the singularly wide trunk of the baobab offers the best shade around, the large fruits and edible leaves offer important nutrition and medicine too, while the very presence of a baobab tree is an indication of groundwater in the area (the trees can retain thousands of gallons of water themselves, which people can tap in a pinch). Baobab trees are the stuff of legend, laden with cultural meaning and power. And the existence of the tree that produced these special seeds provides living proof of their importance.
These seeds come from one of a handful of African baobab trees that can be found growing on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an ocean away from their native land. There's little doubt these trees were born from seeds smuggled to the island by enslaved people tortuously brought there to work the sugarcane fields from the 1600s to the 1800s. Oral tradition tells us that people braided various seeds into their hair, and in so doing introduced important African crops like okra, watermelons, and black-eyed peas to the Americas. Baobabs found in St. Croix a dry, savannah-like habitat where they have been able to thrive for some 250 years or more.
One particularly impressive tree (not the source of these seeds) is called the Grove Place Baobab, in St. Croix's second-largest city, Frederiksted. Local tradition holds that it was planted by an African prince thanks to the advice of a wise man back in Africa. Chip Engelhard of the News of St. Croix recounts the story: "The wise man told the prince, 'every night when you sleep, put a baobab seed in your mouth.' Not long after, the prince was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He kept the seed with him through all the trials and hardships of the MIddle Passage before landing on St. Croix. When he arrived, to spend the rest of his life on St. Croix, he planted that seed and tended it carefully until it grew tall and strong. And that his how the baobab came to St. Croix." The Grove Place Baobab has long been an important symbol for Crucian people. It's said that twelve women, followers of the rebel leader Queen Mary Thomas, were burned alive beneath the tree in the aftermath of 1878's Fireburn labor rights. In the 20th century, labor leader D. Hamilton Jackson gave speeches defending workers' rights in the shade of the tree. Locals say people have taken shelter inside the tree's hollow trunk, and one woman is said to have given birth inside the tree. Located at 194 Grove Place, visitors to St. Croix can still meet this amazing being themselves.
Also called "monkey bread tree" (or, more colorfully, "dead rat tree", after the appearance of the hanging fruit), baobabs are perhaps the largest member of the Malvaceae or mallow family, which also includes okra, hibiscus, kenaf, and marshmallow. It's unlikely to survive year-round outdoors in most of the continental US, with the exceptions of south Florida, south Texas, and California, but it can be grown in a container and brought outside during the frost-free months. Baobabs drop their leaves and go dormant in the winter. EFN co-founder Nate Kleinman kept one alive in a pot for 5 years, after his old friend Eliot Ballard gave him a few seeds. That tree had a prominent place in the "Philadelphia Assembled" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2017 (see photo), as a symbol of resistance and fortitude. These seeds were collected on St. Croix by Nate and Eliot in the spring of 2023.
In support of their inspiring work organizing small farmers in St. Croix, EFN will donate 50% of the proceeds of these seeds to Yvette and Dale Brown of Sejah Farms in St. Croix. Here is an article explaining some of their great work.
NOTE: The last two photos here show baobab trees in Africa, the first in Mali (showing Dogon people gathered beneath the tree), the second an enormous tree in Zimbabwe. The other photos all show the tree in St. Croix, its fruit, or a seedling from it (in the Philadelphia Assembled exhibition at the Museum of Art).
GROWING TIPS: Baobab seeds require no special treatment, but might benefit from being soaked for a day before planting. In our experience, seeds germinate irregularly, some as soon as a few weeks after planting, and some after a few months. Water intermittently.