This is the flower of a most beautiful and exotic tree, it is called the Silk-floss tree or in Latin Ceiba speciosa . It is a deciduous tree that belongs to the mallow family. A native of South America I have watched it growing and flowering here on Gozo and what a delight it has been, at first to see the beautiful yellow and cream flowers – though for some reason some of the flowers on this tree turned out to be pink, then to see the flowers wilt and one by one fall off to expose the fruits, and today when we walked in that area again I saw the fruit fully grown and some had burst to expose their fluffy white silky material. It was only hard to reach high enough to get good photos, so these will have to do. While doing some research on this tree I realised that it is not from this species that kapok is produced, namely this white silky fibre, which as children our pillows were filed with. This made me more determined to look up as much information as possible, it heightened my interest in this tree species. Of course it is always interesting to learn what the uses are of any plant or tree. I learnt that the kapok is produced by another Ceiba, the C. pentandra, this species is found growing in the tropics, it does not grow in Malta or Gozo as far as anyone I have asked knows.
So going back to the C.speciosa our local Silk-floss tree, I noticed the other day that there are fruits or seed pods to be seen. And then I found this white fibre underneath the tree, it was as close as I could get to see the texture. White, fluffy and silky is how I would describe it and the seeds are embedded in this white fibre. I now know that it is not the real kapok. Though the fibres of the C.speciosa can be used in a similar manner as those of the C.pentandra. The C.pentandra is cultivated in South East Asia for its seed fibre. I also found that kapok is the lightest natural fibre in the world, with a density nearly five times as light as cotton. I read that this fibre was used in the design of the first life jackets because of its buoyancy. As a child I remember seeing kapok, feeling it, and found that it was quite dense actually. Something tells me that it is not used much anymore these days, you never hear of it being used, maybe because it is highly inflammable. I also seem to remember that while it was lovely to have natural fibres in our pillows, it did become lumpy quite quickly, so maybe it just isn’t a practical material for today’s needs.
In my research I then came across the Red Silk Cotton Tree, Ceiba Bombax. Also from the family Malvaceae. What is used from this species are the unopened flower buds, they are called Marathi Moggu and are a fragrant spice indigenous to south India’s Chettinad region, used in its regional cooking. They also go under the name of Kapok Buds and are roasted to bring out their flavour. In Thailand they are traditionally used in curries.
A fruit hanging down, and one of the flowers well passed its blooming time, fallen on the grass. C.speciosa
Photos below, here can be seen the seed pod and some of the fluffy material, also a seed pod that fell off the tree before it matured.
Some more facts are: The flowers of the Ceiba trees are an important source of nectar and pollen for honey bees, although apparently they are often pollinated by bats. http://www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/may252005/1679.pdf
Native tribes along the Amazon River harvest kapok fiber to wrap around their blowgun darts. It is grown commercially in some countries but to harvest and separate the fibers is labour-intensive and done manually so it is probably another reason why it is not very popular anymore. Then it is also difficult to spin.
Another use I read about is the oil that the seeds produce, this is used in manufacturing of soap and sometimes it is used as a fertilizer.
I guess this is about all I found out about the Ceiba tree, the three different species that I examined a little. Only one of them I found growing in Gozo. (C.speciosa). One mature tree, at least some years old, but close by I found a very young one that has been planted by the council. Nice to see this.
I am on such an exciting and interesting journey here, getting to know more about the native plants, the rocks, the trees, the agricultural practices, the people (Gozitans) and their traditions, the vernacular architecture, and then sharing some of it via my writing.
I would like to thank you for reading some of my story.