Ceiba pentandra is a flowering tree that is classified in the family Bombacaceae, which contains an estimated 30 genera and 250 species, including baobab trees. Common names include kapok (KAY-pahk) and silk-cotton tree.
Habitat and Range
Ceiba pentandra occurs naturally in tropical rain forests or moist areas of drier forests in West Africa and in Central and South America. In the Americas, the kapok grows from southern Mexico to the southern boundary of the Amazon basin. Kapok trees are also grown on plantations in southeast Asia.
Ceiba pentandra can reach heights of 200 feet (60 m), may grow 13 feet (4 m) a year and can live as long as 200 years. They have wide buttresses at their base and large, flat crowns on top. Leaves are large and palmately compound with five to eight leaflets radiating from a common point on each leaf. Ceiba pentandra are deciduous and will drop all of their leaves once a year.
Flowers are large and bell-shaped, with five white to pink petals. The flowers have a pungent odor, which attracts their bat-pollinators. One to two flowers on each tree open each night, helping to ensure cross-pollination. In addition to bats, hummingbirds, bees, wasps and beetles have been seen visiting the flowers.Each tree may produce 500 to 4,000 fruits each fruiting season. The fruits are thick, woody seedpods containing approximately 200 small, brown seeds. Thus, one kapok tree may produce as many as 800,000 seeds per season.
Silk on the Wind
The pod-like fruits open on the tree, releasing the seeds to the wind. Each seed is covered in white tufts of silky hair called kapok fiber. These hairs act as parachutes, helping the wind-dispersed seeds spread away from their parent plant. This decreases the chance that seedlings will have to compete with the parent plant for scarce soil nutrients and other resources.Like many tropical trees, kapoks are highly susceptible to interior decay. Some ecologists hypothesize that there may be a selective advantage to this particular tendency. Hollow portions of tropical trees are used extensively by bats, birds and other animals. For example, in Brazil, seven different species of bats were found roosting inside one hollow kapok tree. The beneficial droppings of these animals often fall all the way down a hollow tree section to the ground where the tree's roots have immediate access to nutrients. Competition for nutrients on the tropical forest floor is extremely intense and, because it's usually too dark inside a hollow for other plants to grow, the tree has a monopoly on the nutrient resources that fall within it.
Human Uses and Cultural Importance
These kapok fibers were, and in some places still are, commonly used as insulation and stuffing material for furniture and upholstered automobile seats. Because they're lightweight and waterproof, lifejackets were exclusively filled with kapok fibers until the middle of the 20th century.
Oil is made from the seeds of kapoks and is then made into soap. The seeds are also eaten by people and livestock in many parts of the world. In traditional medicine practiced in Surinam, the seeds, leaves, bark and resin from kapok trees are used to treat dysentery, fevers, venereal diseases, asthma, menstrual bleeding and kidney diseases. In Colombia, the bark is made into a liquid and applied to hair to stimulate growth. The same concoction is also given to cows after delivery to help shed the placenta.
Native tribes also put bits of kapok fiber on the base of their poison darts to make the darts fly better. Other tribes wrapped the fibers around the trunks of fruit trees to discourage leaf-cutting ants from clipping the leaves of the trees. The trunks of kapok trees were also made into carvings, canoes and coffins.
In addition to the use of the products, the kapok tree is culturally important to different groups of native people in tropical forests. To the Maya and various Hispanic cultures in Central and South America, the kapok is a holy tree that connects the terrestrial world to the heavens above. Some cultures believe that the dead climbed the kapok to reach heaven.Kapok trees are also culturally significant in Africa and are sacred in West Africa because they're associated with burial and ancestors. It’'s also thought that the bark and leaves of kapoks have the power to expel evil spirits. In a region in Senegal, healing villages were founded at the base of large kapok trees because it was believed that these trees heal and protect people.
Many non-healing villages are also centered under the shade of kapok trees. If a kapok tree is not present at a village site, one will usually be planted. Often, when a forest is cleared, a great kapok tree will be left, providing shade for crops and serving as a reminder of the forest that once stood there.
Location at the Zoo
As visitors approach the Tropical Rain Forest exhibit from a distance, they encounter a simulation of the remnants of a hollow kapok tree with a buttressed spire reaching approximately 28 feet at its highest point. As in nature, the roots of our simulated kapok spread along the ground for more than 30 feet and are covered in epiphytes such as bromeliads.
In Costa Rica, kapok trees are increasingly rare. Even though one tree would produce a huge quantity of wood, it is not good for construction because it is brittle when dry. The main use of wood from these trees is for concrete framing. These beautiful trees are cut down and their wood, which is very inexpensive, is used perhaps only once and then discarded. The Costa Rican conservation community wants to elevate the kapok to endangered status. Costa Rican has a few trees on the endangered list and these cannot be cut down for commercial use. Currently Ceiba pentandra is not on the list.
In the Gambia in West Africa, many people depend on products from the forest for food. Ceiba pentandra is valued in this region not only because its seeds can be eaten by people and livestock, but also as an economically important timber tree. However, the once intact forests of the Gambia have been seriously degraded, mainly through human activities such as illegal felling, frequent bush fires and unsustainable harvesting of forest products. Ceiba pentandra and other beneficial tree species are considered a high national priority for conservation. Consequently, the seedlings of these trees are raised in nurseries and are planted in degraded areas.
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