'Trees of life': Tracing the journey of baobab trees from Australia to Dubai

We find out more about the four ‘trees of life’ that recently arrived on UAE shores

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What is largest in its class, can live for thousands of years and has travelled more than 10,000 kilometres to get to the UAE? If you've spotted the recent horticultural addition in Al Seef, Dubai, you may know the answer is the baobab tree, also known as the tree of life.

Four baobabs were planted at the Meraas development last month after travelling over land and sea from Australia. They joined others of the same genus that were planted about 18 months ago near the entrances of the Four Seasons and Bulgari hotels in Jumeirah.

Adansonia gregorii is indigenous to Australia's Northern Territory, and the trees planted in Dubai are among several that were salvaged from land being cleared for agriculture.

Look through the photo gallery about to see more of the trees in Dubai.

What are baobab trees?

Baobabs are the largest succulent plants in the world. They can conserve thousands of litres of water and store nutrients for extended periods of time in any part of the tree – leaves, stems or roots – making baobabs the horticultural equivalent of camels. The trees are also capable of withstanding tough climatic conditions, hence the moniker 'tree of life'.

There are four baobab trees at Al Seef and three in Jumeirah. Victor Besa / The National  

Michael Goode, associate landscape architect at Cracknell Dubai, the firm that introduced the trees to Dubai, says this is the first time baobabs have been used in a public area in the emirate. He says the trees were a response to a design brief from Meraas to bring something "unique and kind of astonishing" to Dubai. "We wanted to incorporate an exotic species that people maybe haven't experienced before," Goode says. "These trees are different from anything you generally see in the region; they are distinctive, sculptural and act as a focal point within the project." 

These are amazing trees; even when they are not in the ground, they will start to sprout

Research indicated the trees would adapt well to the climate in Dubai, but Goode says it was equally important that the deciduous trees look striking all year round. "These trees can establish themselves in various conditions, and can tolerate salty brackish water and drought. The climate in the Northern Territories varies quite a lot, and the baobab can even withstand bush fires. Often scorch marks will remain on the trees from when they have 'come back' after a fire."   

Typically, when the trees are harvested, each one is marked with a number that will be used to identify it, and Cracknell was sent pictures of a series of trees from which to choose. Each baobab has unique features, such as the number of stems, shape of the canopy and width of trunk – the trunk colour, too, can be different and is richer for trees that have survived fires.

Baobabs are identifiable by their bulky trunks and slim branches. Photo: Cycad Enterprises

The journey to the UAE

The Dubai developers wanted the specimens to complement each other once they were planted, and to be different heights and sizes to ensure the composition worked from any angle. Preparing the chosen trees for transport involved taking them out of the ground and pruning them, with the branches clipped back. A 35-tonne excavator was used to harvest the trees, assisted by a 14-tonne crane to manoeuvre them on to lorries.

They were then driven in convoy across to Brisbane on the east coast of Australia, a road trip of more than 3,500km. They were then loaded into shipping containers and covered to prevent them from drying out. The rest of the journey was completed by boat and, about eight weeks later, the baobabs reached the UAE.

Baobab trees have a history in the Middle East as the Arab traders would plant the trees around souqs and oases as food for their camels and themselves

Josef Perner, the Australian supplier of the trees and managing director at Cycad Enterprises, travelled to Dubai to oversee the installation and make sure the trees were given the best chance of taking root. He says they can even tolerate being bare rooted – dug from the ground, with no soil around their roots – for a year or more if needed. "These are amazing trees; even when they are not in the ground, they will start to sprout. By the time they arrived in Dubai, there were signs of new growth," he says.

Made for Dubai's climate

Colleen D'Souza, director of horticulture at Cracknell – a role that includes selecting plants for the soft­scape of designs, and considering how these need to be irrigated and cared for to achieve good growth – says the baobabs should cope well with their surroundings.

"While the baobab is highly drought-tolerant, it can also take extended periods of flooding, which is one of the issues to consider as these planting locations are close to the seas and in a high water table. They might have standing water so the trees needed to be able to take that," she says.

"They also need to be resilient if exposed to hot, dry winds, and they have to be able to withstand the saline windy conditions that they might experience near the coast. We checked with the supplier whether any special care would be needed, and he came back with, 'Use plain sand; don't use compost'." 

By the time they arrived in Dubai, the bare-rooted baobabs were already starting to sprout. Photo: Cycad Enterprises

From this point, the trees will be irrigated in situ and given an occasional feed. They ­usually produce large white flowers in April or May, depending on how hot the weather is, at which time they are watered less. The trees will be fed after flowering, and again every other month from October, at the start of the local growing season. 

History in the Middle East

According to Perner there are nine species of baobab trees throughout the world. As well as in Australia, they can also be found in Madagascar, mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. "Baobab trees have a history in the Middle East as the Arab traders would plant the trees around souqs and oases as food for their camels and themselves. All parts of the trees are edible, and camels would be fed on baobabs in times of extreme hardship. Their herders would cut sections of the trees, and the camels would thrive on their high water content," he explains.

Very old trees can have a girth of 20 metres and can store thousands of litres of water inside their trunks. Not only have the indigenous people of Australia's Northern Territory tapped these trees for life-­saving water when other sources dried up, but they have also used parts of the bark to make rope, baskets and nets.  

The export of baobabs is strictly controlled by the Australian government; the four trees in Dubai were brought to their new home under a special licence. Transportation would likely cost between Dh100,000 and Dh200,000.

The next time you're in Al Seef or near the hotel developments in Jumeirah, take a little walk on the wild side to get a closer look at these gigantic trees. They are too big to hug, but as I gave one a little pat, I thought that it could be around for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years – a reasonable return on the cost and labour investment made to bring them here.