Baobabs produce a large fruit which are filled with hard kidney-shaped seeds. These seeds are “nature-designed” to survive harsh conditions and to germinate at exactly the right time so that the young seedling can grow and survive in the wild. Our job is to crack that code by mimicking the natural conditions that stimulate germination and allow the seedlings to grow successfully.
If you live in Africa, make sure that you use seed that comes from your local area or from your region. Baobabs differ genetically from region to region so it’s best to use seed from your closest population. For example, it is not advisable to plant seed sourced in West Africa in southern Africa. It is important to do this as trees are best adapted to local conditions and to avoid genetic contamination in the future.
If you live outside of Africa then you have a choice of 8 species of baobab, one from Australia, six from Madagascar and one species from mainland Africa. The mainland African one (Adansonia digitata) will have regional variations. Where you get the seed from is your choice, but it will be valuable to document where you get your seed and which species it is as most baobabs look very similar for the first 100 years.
Best time of year to plant baobab seeds
Baobab seeds love hot humid conditions with long day-light hours, so the best time of the year to plant them will be in the middle of your summer season. If you live in an area with winter-rainfall, then you will need to supplement the watering while the plants are still young to mimic a summer-rainfall area.
Use at least 3 – 6 seeds, as not all your seeds will germinate in the first year. If you have seed that has come straight out of the fruit, first wash the white fruit powder off the seed.
The best planting bags to use are ones that are at least 20 cm deep. This is because the seedling will develop a tuber in its first and second year of growth. The container in which you are planting the seed will need to accommodate the growth of the underground tuber. Later you will either plant the seedling out into the ground or transfer the seeding to an even larger and deeper bag/container until you are ready to plant it out.
Baobabs are very tolerant of a wide variety of soil mixtures, but they do best in sandy soils. Fill the planting bag with a mixture of 25 – 50 % sand and the rest a loamy soil. The trick here is to ensure that the soil is well drained as they don’t like to be waterlogged. So, if your soil is already quite sandy, that’s perfect.
Planting into bags
Place your planting bags in a sunny area. Plant 3 seeds per bag, spacing the seeds in a triangle formation in the soil. The seeds can be pushed 2 – 3 cm underground. Water the bags every day until one or more of the seeds germinate. You might find that only one of the seeds germinate or all of them together. If you get more than one seed germinating, transplant the second or third seedling into its own bag after a few months.
If you want to keep your seedling for longer in the planting bags, then make sure that they don’t get too big for the bag. Transplant the seedlings into bigger bags when they grow bigger. Be careful not to damage or bend the main root or tuber as this will affect the growth of the tree in future.
Baobab seedlings grow well and fast in the first few months after germination. They will start to grow a tuber and send out a stem with simple green leaves. As soon as winter starts and the conditions get colder and the days get shorter, the seedling will shed its leaves and go dormant.
Watering: Water your seedling only when it has leaves. As soon as it loses its leaves in the winter you can stop watering. In early spring, start watering again. Initially water only once a week, until the plant has more leaves and then more frequently. If you over water the seedlings while it is leafless or when the leaves are still small this can cause root rot and the plant will die. When the seedling is in full leaf it can cope with lots of water and will respond by growing quickly.
Fertilizing: It’s not normally necessary to fertilize baobab seedlings, but they will respond well to most off-the shelf nitrogen fertilizers.
Care of your young plant
Plant your seeding into the ground when it is at least 50cm tall or taller. Measure this from the soil to the top of the plant. They like full sun, so select a sunny place away from buildings as the roots grow very wide. They do not like frost so they should be planted in a protected area or should be protected with frost netting in the winter until it has grown at least 3 meters tall. When you plant the seedling into the ground be careful not to bend or break the root as this will affect how well the seedling grows in future.
If there are livestock, chickens or wild animals around then it will be very important to protect the seedling from browsing. To do this place 4 dropper poles in a square shape around the seedling at least 1 meter way from the tree and surround with mesh wire ensuring that animals cannot reach the seedling.
Continue to water your seedlings to encourage they grow fast. If you do not water the seedlings the growth will be frustratingly slow. Remember to only water your seedlings when they are in leaf in the summer months.
Once the young tree grows side branches, you can prune the lower branches in order to give the young tree shape and to encourage it to grow in height.
Monitor the growth of your young trees by noting the date of planting, measuring the circumference at the base of the plant and measure its height every year. Remember to take a photograph of it every year for record purposes.
Enjoy the journey and please send the Baobab Foundation a picture of your tree together with its records, history and provenance. We always love hearing from other baobab growers.