In search of baobabs
By Gillian Condy
In June 2013, I travelled to Madagascar with a baobab expert who had studied these unique trees of Africa for 10 years in preparation for a book. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and home to six of the world’s eight baobab species. The baobabs grow in the north, southwest and western coastline of the island.
Around Diego Suarez, in the north, we found three species on the first day, namely Adansonia suarezensis, A. perrieri and a young plant of A. madagascariensis – in flower two months later than previously recorded. It’s of the most spectacular of baobab flowers with bright yellow and red petals that curl back to set the 15 cm-long lemon-yellow stamens free. As we were constantly on the move, most of my drawings were done on tracing paper or drawn in the hotel room late at night before the generators were switched off, then completed at home.
The baobab trees in Mahory Forest included one off the largest specimens of A. suarezensis. The previous night’s flowers were strewn on the ground, a beautiful soft cream pompom with 860–950 stamens. There was no chance of collecting fresh material from such a tall tree. The specimen illustrated was collected on an island we reached after a 1.5-hour boat ride on choppy seas – a wondrous sight of majestic trees on volcanic rock with their feet in the water.
We proceeded to Tuléar on the southwestern coast and took the ferry south to Anakoa. There is a baobab forest in the vicinity of Anakoa with trees of most magnificently contorted shapes, and each tree merits a photograph or portrait as a standalone. We visited Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, established in 1927, and famous for its salt lake with flamingos, and baobabs.
From Tuléar we headed north along the coastal road, on some of the worst roads we had experienced or endured along with glimpses of a rugged coastline with crystal clear water or stands of mangroves and palm trees. Madagascar has 192 endemic palm species with 83 percent under threat of extinction due to land clearing and exploitation.
Reniala Reserve, near Ifaty, was created to protect an amazing patch of spiny forest and swollen-based trees, often mistaken for baobabs. Home of La Grande Mere – a wonderful old lady with strangely textured skin and 27 m in girth. Perched on a small stool I had time to start a drawing in the field.
One night we slept under a huge sacred tree near the village of Andombiry with its magical atmosphere. There was time for me to start sketching in the evening (surrounded by 15 children) and it went on till early morning, the next day.
Flowering material was collected using an extendable long pole with a hook – often way too short. Closer to Morondava we collected the larger white pompom flower of A. grandidieri. I counted 2,035 stamens on one flower and 1,305 on another!
Gillain Condy is a much-feted botanical artist based in South Africa. She has illustrated several books and designed 13 sets of postage stamps for Botswana.