The upside-down tree – Penang's very own Baobab

Penang's Baobab tree © Adrian Cheah

According to African legend, the Baobab wanted to become the most beautiful tree of all. When it realised that this was not possible, it put its head into the ground, so only the roots pointed heavenward. Another legend holds that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving.

The baobab (Adansonia digitata) is indigenous to the semi-arid part of sub-Saharan African and Madagascar. It can grow up to 25 meters tall and can live for over a thousand years. The baobab is leafless for nine months of the year. If one were to describe the baobab, you would have to say that it looks like it has been picked out of the ground and stuffed back in upside-down. The trunk would be the tap-root, and the branches the finer capillary roots. The baobab looks like this for a reason. In the wet months water is stored in its thick, corky, fire-resistant trunk for the nine dry months ahead.

Penang's Baobab tree © Adrian Cheah

Today the tree with the root-like branch structure has become characteristic of the African savannahs. But not many people are aware that Penang also has its very own "upside-down" tree, the largest and oldest of its kind in Malaysia. For over a century, it has been reclining gracefully at what is now the Macalister Road - Residency Road roundabout, watching the world go by as horse-drawn carriages gave way to steam locomotives and eventually to our modern cars which still whizz by and all around its little island where time seems to stand still. Surrounded by a white picket fence, a signboard identifies it, and boulders have been arranged as seats for viewers who wish to view this historic tree.

What is so special about this particular Baobab tree, aside from the fact that it leans drastically to one side and has to be supported by wooden crutches? According to historical records, the seed of "that prodigious and improbable tree" sprouted into existence under very unusual circumstances. It was sown in 1871 by Captain Tristram C.S. Speedy (photo above, right: a soldier of fortune of some repute), who was employed to keep peace between two notorious Chinese secret societies, the Hai San and the Ghee Hin. The Baobab appears to have been planted in one corner of a Hindu cemetery which existed at that time. In the 1930s the Municipal Council decided to cut down this tree because it was leaning over and could prove a hazard to the public. George Town, in those days was full of avenues of splendid trees (and it still is!) and its denizens took great civic pride in the maintenance of its beauty. The proposal to cut down the Baobab was contested with deep emotion and the tree was finally saved by having it propped-up with wooden crutches!

Penang's Baobab tree © Adrian Cheah

Some botanical facts: Adansonia digitata has a character which is unique in the genus: pendulous flowers. The tree is usually massive, with an irregular crown, and may reach a height of 25 meters. The bark is grey and smooth. Sometimes irregularly tuberculate. The swollen trunk attains a diameter of more than 10 meters, is of pulpous wood without growth rings. Leaves are deciduous, digitately compound with leaflets 12 cm long; large 18cm solitary, scented, pendulous white flowers with purplish stamens. The fruits are variable, globose to ovoid, hairy, reaching a length of 30cm. From a distance, they look like dead rats hanging among the branches, which also earns it the name "Dead rat tree".

Penang's Baobab tree © Adrian Cheah

Uses: Many parts of this tree are useful. The baobab's bark, leaves, fruit, and trunk are all used. The bark of the baobab is used for cloth and rope, the leaves for condiments and medicines, while the fruit, called "monkey bread", is eaten. The dry pulp of the long cucumber-shaped fruit is edible and its seed produces oil.

In Africa, sometimes people live inside the huge trunks (the trunks of living baobabs are hollowed out for dwellings) and bush-babies live in the crown. The tree is regarded as sacred and offerings to ancestors are made at the base of the massive trunks.

---------------------------------------------------------
Written by William Chow
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 18 September 2019