Deep Roots

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.

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."

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Afefe L. Tyehimba