Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Indian Kapok Tree - Ugly But Useful (Bombax ceiba)

Here is a tree that will definitely get your attention! The photo above is from our trip yesterday to Longwood Gardens. It is an Indian Kapok tree, aka Silk Cotton tree, aka Bombax ceiba erianthos. Of course what caught my eye was those huge thorns. The tree grows these thorns to protect itself from animals that might chew at its bark. The thorns fall off as the tree gets bigger and older. This one was about 20 feet tall and 3 feet around - they can grow to 125 ft tall and 10 feet around.

Kapok trees are known for their fruit, which are filled with a cottony material that is more water resistant than other natural fibers. Before synthetic fibers were developed, kapok was commonly used for insulation and stuffing, especially for life jackets. Below is a photo of kapok fruit pods, courtesy of Wikimedia.

That is not the end of the wonders of kapok. Kapok seed oil can be used to make soap, and its wood is soft and light weight. The gum of the kapok tree is a traditional Asian remedy for stomach ailments. The roots of young trees used to be made into a candy that was alleged to have aphrodisiac properties. In the spring, beautiful red flowers appear. Young petals are used in some herbal teas. Below is a photo of these flowers from Wikimedia.

The kapok tree also has a long literary history. Two different Hindu myths offer explanations for the thorns on the bark, and the tree serves two functions in the Hindu description of hell. The enticing red flowers draw damned souls to the tree, but its fruit offers only a mouth full of cotton. The tree's thorns are also used to torture hell's denizens.

A more modern story involves a cousin of the Indian Kapok tree, known as Ceiba pentandra. In the children's book The Great Kapok Tree, a young man is dissuaded from cutting down a tree in the Amazon rain forest after receiving a lesson in ecology from the other inhabitants of the forest.


  1. Great post, I have not been to Longwood Gardens in a long time. I should go this spring it would be lovely there. Thanks for your post.

    Happy New Years to you and your family.

  2. I think I like the Kapok, thank you for the introduction. I love tree lore to.

  3. I guess it ages me, but kapok was the standard filling for pillows when I was very young. But I've never seen pictures of the tree. Thanks for sharing...

  4. What a weird and wonderful tree!

  5. zomg my godness

  6. Hindi/Indian name for the tree is SEMAL/ Shalmali. Its Beautiful burning red flowers are forerunners of Indian spring.