Trees: 3 Realms

By Jheri St. James

Madagascar is a country of polysyllabic words: The capital is Antananarivo and provinces have names like Fianarantsoa, Toamasina, Antsiranana, Mahajanga and Toliara.

In that vein, Lanto Hariveloniaina from the U.S. Embassy in Madagascar accomplished the good soil-collecting deed from Madagascar for our project. This soil, plus that from Comoros, whose embassy is located in Madagascar, completed the soils of Southern Africa. The collection location was Lazaina, five kilometers from Ambohimanga Palace. This is near the home of Mr. Hariveloniaina.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Madagascar is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa. The main island, also called Madagascar, is the fourth largest island in the world. Two-thirds of its population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day. This island was created when it separated from the Indian subcontinent 80 to 100 million years ago.

As time passed, it became a hub of trade between Arabs, Persians and Somali traders who connected Madagascar with East Africa, the Middle East and India, creating a wealthy nation dominated at various times by chiefdoms and monarchs. In the Middle Ages, Madagascar functioned as a contact port for Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa and Zanzibar.

The Portuguese, French, and British began influencing this area in the year 1500, interspersed with slave traders, pirates, and missionaries. Queen Ranavalona I, “The Cruel” (see picture), issued a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Madagascar, slaughtering 150,000 Christians and bringing commerce to a standstill.

In the 1800’s France revived its interest in Madagascar, annexing it in 1896 and sending the 103-year ruling family of the Merina monarchy to exile in Algeria. During World War II, some leaders in Nazi Germany proposed deporting all of Europe’s Jews to Madagascar, but nothing came of this. After France fell to Germany, the Vichy government administered Madagascar. In 1942, British troops occupied the island to preclude its seizure by the Japanese, after which the French once more took over. In 1947 during the Malagasy Uprising 8,000 to 90,000 people shed their blood on this soil. Finally on June 26, 1960, the adoption of a constitution and full independence came to this dramatic locale, followed by internal struggles for control, which continue to this day.

Of the 10,000 plants native to Madagascar, 90% are found nowhere else in the world. Mother Earth was prolific here, but human activity destroyed a third of the native vegetation; 90% of its original forest land; the elephant birds, lemurs (right photo) and many other species, mainly due to habitat destruction, hunting, mining operations, slashing and burning (see erosion photo above left ). Agriculture, including fishing and forestry have been mainstays of the economy. When Coca-Cola switched to New Coke, involving less vanilla, Madagascar’s economy took a marked downturn, but returned to previous levels after the return of Coke Classic.

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Baobab trees store water inside the swollen trunk (up to 120,000 litres (32,000 US gal)) to endure the harsh drought conditions particular to each region. All occur in seasonally arid areas, and are deciduous, shedding their leaves during the dry season.

The leaves are commonly used as a leaf vegetable throughout the area of mainland African distribution, including Malawi, Zimbabwe, and the Sahel. They are eaten both fresh and as a dry powder. In Nigeria, the leaves are locally known as kuka, and are used to make kuka soup.

The fruit is nutritious possibly having more vitamin C than oranges and exceeding the calcium content of cow's milk. Also known as "sour gourd" or "monkey's bread", the dry fruit pulp separated from seeds and fibers is eaten directly or mixed into porridge or milk. The fruit can be used to produce cream of tartar.The seeds are mostly used as a thickener for soups, but may also be fermented into a seasoning, roasted for direct consumption, or pounded to extract vegetable oil. The tree also provides a source of fiber, dye, and fuel.

The dry pulp is either eaten fresh or used to add to gruels on cooling after cooking – a good way of preserving the vitamin contents. It can also be ground to make a refreshing drink with a pleasing wine-gum flavour. Pulp can be stored for fairly long periods for use in soft drink production but it needs airtight containers. It can also be frozen if ground to a powder.

In 1881 German explorer "Carl Liche" wrote an account in the South Australian Register of encountering a sacrifice performed by the "Mkodo" tribe of Madagascar:

"The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey."


The tree was given further publicity by the 1924 book by former Governor of Michigan Chase Osborn, Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree. Osborn claimed that both the tribes and missionaries on Madagascar knew about the hideous tree, and also repeated the above Liche account. In his 1955 book, Salamanders and other Wonders, science author Willy Ley determined that the Mkodo tribe, Carl Liche, and the Madagascar man-eating tree itself all appeared to be fabrications.

Some people believe that trees are special on earth because they are the one being that belongs to the three realms: below the earth; upon the earth; and in the sky. The physical reality of the tree reflects its capacity for binding these corresponding spiritual realms together.

Island geography, cruel queens, takeovers by other nations, palaces, Coke and the special baobob tree all have one thing in common: they occurred/sit/grow upon the soil of Madagascar. We thank our collector for this important collection. Or as they say in Madagascar polysyllabics: Misaotra betsaka





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