Deep Roots

The wide and welcoming branches of the baobab beckon our humble scribe

The baobab tree's majestic opulence and generous spirit is memorialized in an African folktale that goes like this: A hare's usually peppy step slowed to a limp in the hot sun of the Sahara desert when she came upon a noble baobab. "Leaves, can I share your shade?" Hare asked.

"Yes," the leaves whispered. Underneath the branches Hare scratched her furry back against the trunk, marveling at its size and strength. The baobab then questioned whether Hare would care to see its heart.

"Your heart? Oh yes, could I?" Hare replied.

Baobabs like the one pictured above can live to be 1000 years old. Lester Pancoast (left) is a quiet man who can't say enough about his beloved trees.
Joshua Prezant
Baobabs like the one pictured above can live to be 1000 years old. Lester Pancoast (left) is a quiet man who can't say enough about his beloved trees.
As a landscape project manager for the City of Hollywood, Joe Cangiolosi says the baobab trees should be a permanent fixture, "if man just leaves them alone"
Joshua Prezant
As a landscape project manager for the City of Hollywood, Joe Cangiolosi says the baobab trees should be a permanent fixture, "if man just leaves them alone"
Rather than see his baobab tree destroyed by the government, Bob Reagan (left) called Yesteryear Village's John Riddle and offered a hefty donation
Joshua Prezant
Rather than see his baobab tree destroyed by the government, Bob Reagan (left) called Yesteryear Village's John Riddle and offered a hefty donation
At their own expense -- and risk -- early pioneers traveled abroad to bring baobabs like this to South Florida
Joshua Prezant
At their own expense -- and risk -- early pioneers traveled abroad to bring baobabs like this to South Florida
A passionate horticulturist for whom Miami's Fairchild Tropical Garden was named, David Fairchild helped deliver more than 9000 foreign plants and trees to SoFla
Joshua Prezant
A passionate horticulturist for whom Miami's Fairchild Tropical Garden was named, David Fairchild helped deliver more than 9000 foreign plants and trees to SoFla

With a deafening crack, the tree opened and Hare walked inside, where she discovered sacks of precious jewels. "Take what you want," the tree offered. A humble sort, Hare took only one red ruby, thanking the baobab profusely as she left to return home. But Hyena, who'd been watching secretly from a distance, jumped inside the baobab and began stuffing all the jewels he could carry into a large bag while mocking the tree for being fat. Heaving the bag over his shoulder, Hyena was making a hasty exit when the baobab's trunk cracked shut, trapping him inside. From that day on, the Hyena smelled of death. And the baobab never again opened her heart.

For centuries Africans like the Zambezi, Sudanese, and Senegalese have revered the baobab and believed in its generosity. Legend has it that ancestral spirits gather beneath the tree at night to whisper magical secrets while guarding villages. Young boys washed in water that has been steeped in bark from a baobab grow to become strong men. Researchers in California have even confirmed that women with fertility problems are more likely to become pregnant after drinking soup made from the tree's vitamin-rich leaves.

The baobab is also legendary for its size. With a life span of 1000 years, the tree often grows to more than 60 feet high and 30 feet in diameter. Its canopy may spread to 225 feet. A mature tree can hold 4000 gallons of water. In fall and winter months, the bare branches (which spread up and out horizontally like wide-open arms) make the mammoth tree appear almost ghostly. In spring and summer, those arms are covered with star-shape leaves, flower blossoms, and large seedpods covered in fuzz. While the pods are used in some regions of Africa to make rope, fishing nets, and clothes, the leaves, seeds, and blossoms furnish a spinachlike vegetable and medicines to treat fever and kidney disease.

Aside from all the scientific wonders and mystical lore surrounding the baobab, many African-Americans feel a personal connection with the tree. It is a treasured symbol of the motherland that continues to propagate in harsh climatic conditions, the same way our captured ancestors outlasted slavery, giving life to subsequent generations.

I've often imagined traveling to Senegal on Africa's west coast where, a family member once told me, my ancestors wove and sold fabrics at the marketplace. Draped in hand-dyed mudcloth (a burlap-type fabric that's painted with storytelling symbols and sewn together in strips), I would walk barefoot along the same dirt roads they once trod, talking with kinsmen whose English, if they spoke any, would be heavily accented by their French patois. There, in the tortuous heat of the day, I'd sit in the shade of a baobab, Senegal's national tree.

A few weeks ago, my dream of seeing a baobab tree came true. But aside from my wearing a mudcloth poncho, it didn't happen as I had imagined -- or where I imagined. Baobab trees, I was amazed to discover, have been growing in South Florida for almost a century. Aside from a small portion of Southern California, this is the only region in America with a climate warm enough to support baobab trees. But will they be a permanent part of our landscape? It turns out some trees are on shakier ground than others.

As a security guard jotted down my license plate number one balmy November morning, I drove slowly through the gates of a Coconut Grove subdivision where both stately and modest houses were shrouded by lush palms and thick ficus. Situated on a quarter acre overlooking Biscayne Bay, Lester Pancoast's quaint, rustic-looking home was surrounded by more than 150 trees, including three baobabs.

Pancoast, a tall, lanky man dressed in brown pleated slacks and a gold Polo sweater, answered the door with a ready smile. Genteel and reserved, the 70-year-old landscape architect doesn't like to talk about the privilege that comes from being born into one of Miami's wealthy pioneer clans. Instead he says he was lucky enough to grow up in a family that "was very botanically inclined."

Pancoast is a grandson of John Collins, a real-estate mogul who owned practically all of Miami Beach in the early 1900s. (Collins Avenue is named after him.) Collins not only grew more than 100 acres of avocados, he also raised exotic palms. He and other family members often traveled to tropical regions around the globe, bringing back seeds for trees, including baobabs. Today his grandson's bluish eyes sparkle as he waxes horticultural. "I can recall seeing my first baobab trees over at Collins Park and then at the Fairchild [Tropical Garden] when I was just seven," Pancoast recalls. "You never get rid of those impressions; the sheer size of it was incredible."

In 1989 Pancoast spent a month exploring plant life in the wilds of Madagascar and returned with some baobab seeds. (Though the continental African baobab, which bears the botanical name Adansonia digitata, is considered the granddaddy of the species, other specimens grow in places like Madagascar, India, and Australia.) The three trees in Pancoast's back yard, just five feet tall and still twiggish and bare, grow slower than their African counterparts. But that doesn't bother Pancoast, who thinks about what his property will look like in the future. "I'm a landscape architect, and I need tools to work with," he says. "Baobabs are a splendid tool. It's not just a tree."

A splendid tool indeed, I thought, as we headed up Poinciana Avenue to see a larger baobab. Not that I didn't appreciate Pancoast's Madagascar saplings, but nearby, he told me, I'd see a tree of legendary proportions. Sure enough, we came upon a nearly 100-year-old baobab with a trunk massive enough to make me rear back in amazement. Here, in this most unlikely of places, I came face to face with my heritage. Craning my neck, I gazed up at star-shape leaves and wildly curving branches that dripped dozens of seedpods. Despite the beaming sun, the gray-brown bark was wrinkled and cool to the touch like a grandmother's weathered face.

Though our lives and experiences were worlds apart, Pancoast smiled knowingly at the look of awe on my face. But while I was in cultural Nirvana, the ecology of the baobab (it serves as food, shelter, and medicine) was what made Pancoast quiver. "There is so much we can learn from these trees, really," he said softly. "It makes you have an appreciation for God's work."

Mangoes from India and the Philippines, avocados from Mexico and Central America, and kaffir oranges from Mozambique are just a few of the fruits South Floridians have brought back from their travels and planted here, according to the writings of famed horticulturist David Fairchild (for whom Miami's illustrious Fairchild Tropical Garden was named). When he was just 22 years old in the early part of the 20th Century, Fairchild created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Section's purpose was to find sources of food, fiber, and timber.

Along with those primary goals, Fairchild "wanted to bring another thing to this area: a source of shade," says Mike Winterstein, an agricultural research technician at the USDA's Subtropical Horticultural Research Station (SHRS) in Miami. "One of the first things he brought in was large shade trees, including [Caribbean] ficus and banyans. He was looking for biodiversity, a gene bank in case of extinction [of native palms] or loss of habitat." One of the largest shade trees with which Fairchild returned was the baobab, which was planted in 1928 and 1939 at the Chapman Field military air base on Shoal Point south of Coral Gables. Though records don't indicate the number planted, three trees, including one that has grown to 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide, still flourish there.

After World War II federal agriculture officials decided the Chapman property, some 850 acres, was too expensive to maintain. More than 9000 species from places as far away as China and India had been planted there, only a third of which had survived. It seemed Fairchild's dream of creating what he called "an Ellis Island for plants" would be crushed. Fortunately Fairchild had befriended high-society types whose passion for things botanical ran as deep as their pockets. Col. Robert Montgomery, a successful businessman, attorney, and accountant, established Fairchild Tropical Garden on 83 acres of his bayfront land off Old Cutler Road. Like Collins and Fairchild, Montgomery had joined plant expeditions around the globe.

"Thanks to the fact that no secretary [of agriculture] can watch very closely what goes on under his very own nose, my associates and I slipped in all sorts of tropical seeds and plants from all over the world...," Fairchild wrote in one of his journals from 1912. While the Section of Plant Introduction became a research station where plants and trees were preserved and supplied to educational institutions (which it still does today), plenty of private collectors continued their travels and imports of plant life.

Traffic whizzes around Young Circle in downtown Hollywood where, city officials tell me, baobabs were planted in the 1930s. Aside from a few homeless people puffing on cigarettes and sharing coffee, the ten-acre park is empty but looks full with its more than 115 trees. The royal palms, silk oaks, black olives, and weeping hibiscuses, with their ambrosial colors and earthy fragrances, seem like lush natural wonders, putting the neighboring pink stucco and neon to shame. In the mix stand six towering baobabs, disbursed along the park's outer edges like anchors for a large ship.

Unlike the single showstopper I'd seen near Pancoast's house in Coconut Grove, the baobabs in Young Circle engulfed me. Estimated at 65 or 70 years old, these trees haven't nearly reached their peak growth (which happens at about 200 years). I tried to stop gawking long enough to scribble some details: the 50-foot height; the smooth, almost waxy bark on some; the elephantine skin on others; the gnarled roots spreading six feet across the grass; the green, velvety seedpods hanging from two-foot-long stems; and the number of baby steps -- anywhere from 17 to 26 -- it took to circle the trunks.

Joe Cangiolosi has seen these baobabs innumerable times during his 12-year tenure with the City of Hollywood's Landscaping and Forestry Department, but he's still fascinated by them. Cangiolosi, a fiftyish man who sometimes dresses mod, wears his gray hair long and curly, and swears he's going to quit smoking soon, usually spends his days reviewing blueprints and writing grants for new projects. But on this weekday morning, Cangiolosi has other pressing matters: He wants to see what's inside a baobab seedpod. "I've always been curious," he says with a melodious voice, "but now it's become more than a want. I need to see it."

Cangiolosi sits on a bench in front of a white marble statue of a woman holding a baby, titled La Mano Que Mace la Cuna (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). Leaning forward he pounds a baobab seedpod against the statue's concrete platform. It makes a kind of hollow thumping sound, but like the tree, it's strong. After several more whacks, a hairline fracture appears, and Cangiolosi uses a key to pry it open. "Well looka there," he says, pulling at fibrous strands that cover a glob of white pulp, which looks like Play-Doh. Wide-eyed he exclaims, "Is that amazing or what?"

Cangiolosi has read of the substance's use in Australia and Africa in making exotic drinks. The pulp can also be employed as a substitute for cream of tartar; the seeds, tiny dark baubles with thick shells, can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. While the tree is sturdy and can reportedly survive up to four years without water, the seeds can be temperamental, requiring lots of moisture for at least three weeks to germinate. And the trunk can serve as a reservoir, expanding slightly after a heavy rain and contracting during dry seasons.

There's no record of exactly when or by whom the six baobabs in Young Circle were planted, though pictures in the town archives show those same trees in the 1950s, which Cangiolosi believes must have been at least 20 years old then. When Joseph Young founded the town in 1925, with boundaries that enclosed just one square mile, it was little more than marshland interspersed with tomato farms. Envisioning what he called "a city for everyone, from the opulent at the top of the social ladder to the most humble of working people," he wanted Young Circle to be a hub for downtown culture and entertainment.

It's likely Young, who died in 1934, planted the baobabs, Cangiolosi says. Indeed it appears that someone other than he credits Young for introducing the tree to the area. Beneath the founder's bronze bust at the west side entrance to the park, baobab seedpods lie alongside flowers.

As he watches heavy morning traffic, Cangiolosi says there has "been talk at times about splitting the park in half to ease traffic. But people have been quick to put a stop to that. It's still not a preserved site, but I believe these trees will be here a long, long time... if man just leaves them alone."

There is, however, no state or federal environmental law protecting nonindigenous trees like the baobab. Although a few couples, like "John and Dee," have memorialized their love in heart-shape carvings, it appears the baobabs in Young Circle will continue to thrive. Sadly I discovered at least one tree in Palm Beach County might suffer a different fate.

Bob Reagan, a ruddy-faced, plain-talking country man, remembers well the day 25 years ago when a Christian missionary showed up on his property looking for work. "He was a nice fella, even though he didn't stick around long," the retired orange grove owner recalls. "He'd been over to Africa and had brought back this little twig that wasn't much bigger than a pencil. I didn't know then what it really was or that it was special, but a few years later, a friend who was visiting told me about the baobab, that they grow huge and live what seems like forever... and that they are spiritual."

Like most of the specimens I'd seen, Reagan's baobab was big, standing 30 feet high and 8 feet in diameter. But unlike the trees in Miami-Dade and Broward each of which had one massive trunk, Reagan's baobab looked like four in one, with several thick stalks shooting up from a single base. Also unlike the other trees, Reagan's is in danger. That's because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the South Florida Water Management District, recently bought Reagan's property after determining his land was crucial to Everglades restoration.

"Basically it was like, "We're gonna take your property and you've got so long to move out,'" says Reagan who, after lawyers told him he didn't stand a chance of staying, sold his 12 acres on MacArthur Road near Wellington earlier this year for $330,000. "I told [the Corps] I'll give you the back part of my property and $100,000," he contends. "Just let me live there. But that wasn't a drop in the bucket compared to the billions they'll get from the government, so they took it all."

Fred Davis, a land-management official in West Palm Beach, hedged when asked for details about acquisition of Reagan's land. "If you're looking for specifics about money or whatever, that could take a while," says Davis. "But I can tell you we've bought lots of property, thousands of acres over the past four or five years."

Thirty years ago Reagan, then 29 years old, left his native Gatlinburg, Tennessee, "to escape poverty." He moved to the property near Wellington, which had been owned by ranchers and featured a quaint wooden house built in 1934, just the right size for Reagan's family of four. A quiet, undeveloped area that today is still filled with dirt roads and marshland, the place was perfect for citrus groves. And while fruit was his moneymaker, the towering oaks, java plums, and exotic birds flapping and squawking overhead were his pride and joy. "People used come out here on weekends just to admire the beauty," says Reagan. "With all the peacocks and horses and chickens, why, it was better than going to the zoo."

With a deadline of December 31 to vacate the property, Reagan, a self-proclaimed pack rat, is hustling to sell lots of belongings and livestock he can't move to the five acres he recently purchased in Loxahatchee. "To be honest, I don't know what's going to happen to all my things... there's no way I can get everything moved out so quickly. I've started just giving stuff away."

Like his baobab. Rather than see it destroyed when the land becomes a marsh, Reagan donated his tree to Yesteryear Villagein West Palm Beach several months ago. Attached to the state fairgrounds, Yesteryear is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving local history and culture. Yesteryear staffers are working to raise an estimated $20,000 to uproot, move, and replant the tree. They say the baobab will become part of a planned black history museum.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Reagan says, "but if I was black, this wouldn't have happened, with the government taking my property, because Jesse Jackson would have come down here raising Cain. After all that's been done in the past, the government don't want that kind of attention.... You know what I'm getting at?"

In any other circumstance, I might have blown up at this seemingly racist diatribe. But then I thought twice. Indeed, had the government condemned property and a baobab belonging to a black person, the good reverend might have taken up the landowner's cause. I calmed down and realized that, while we might not be of the same mind, we both wanted to see his tree saved.

John Riddle is an administrator at Yesteryear Village. He remembers Reagan's offer last summer to donate his tree. "Needless to say, Bob was very upset and wanted to save that baobab," Riddle recalls, adding that two cranes will be used to move it by February. "It is exactly the kind of thing we do here, trying to preserve history."

A retired postman who used to work as a volunteer at the state fairgrounds, Riddle has the weathered face and strapping physique typical of a man who loves working outdoors. Wearing scruffy leather work boots, faded jeans, and red suspenders printed with the word Yesteryear, he lumbers around the village's six acres of land. The place was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1991 by a group of Palm Beach County citizens interested in promoting the county's heritage. With an annual budget of just under $100,000 and relying primarily on volunteers, it receives funding from corporate sponsors and donors as well as revenues from the $3-per-person admission price.

Several hundred thousand people visit each year. A latticework archway leads to 30 restored structures, including a general store, a sawmill, a post office, a clapboard fire station, a Civil War museum, a schoolhouse, and a church. But the exhibits are not your typical walk-through, read-the-signs type. Many of the buildings have been relocated from their original sites on the streets of West Palm Beach. They're filled with donated goods. Inside the vestibule of a wooden church built in 1893, for instance, Bibles dating back to the early 1800s are encased in glass. In the schoolhouse children's slates sit atop wooden desks. Hardcover books, all yellowed and some dating back to the Civil War, fill wooden shelves.

Riddle's latest project is a black history museum, which will feature the baobab. "The schoolkids will be able to come out here and play underneath it," he says, pointing to a large open field where the tree will be planted. Next to that tract sit two shotgun shacks built in 1923 that were recently relocated from the historically black area of Division Avenue in downtown West Palm. The tiny square structures, only 12 feet wide and 24 feet deep, once housed black laborers and their families. They are called "shotgun" because you could fire a weapon straight through them, from front door to back, without hitting anything. "You wouldn't believe how many visitors we've had who say they used to live in these very houses," says Riddle. "It brings back a lot of memories and makes them feel at home."

At first it seemed odd, trying to picture Reagan's baobab in this setting. It will be a far cry from quiet, woodsy marshland; even the lush opulence of Coconut Grove seemed a more fitting locale for baobabs, given that so many pioneer horticulturists had gone to great expense to transport them there. And at Hollywood's Young Circle, with its funky mix of people... well, no objection. But here, as an attraction added to Ferris wheels, roller coasters, and gift shops? That might be enough to scar kids' psyches, especially if, like me, they are African-Americans who harbor romantic dreams of visiting a place where the baobab guards ancestral secrets.

But then again, Yesteryear, with its emphasis on preserving culture, might be just the right locale. Reagan's baobab will be admired by passersby and experienced by multitudes. Children will play beneath its branches, old folks will rest in its shade, and tour guides will surely tell the story of the noble tree with a heart.

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