The Kapok or Ceibo tree (Ceiba trichistandra), is a tropical tree native to the drier regions of Ecuador and Peru in South America.
The flowers open during the nighttime and are pollinated by bats. Usually, the trees flower every five years and only when the tree is leafless. This generally occurs during the dry season. Fruits and seeds from the tree contain lightweight fibers that are water-repellent.
The ancient Maya of Central America believed that a great Ceiba tree stood at the center of the earth, connecting the terrestrial world to the spirit-world above. The long thick vines hanging down from its spreading limbs provided a connection to the heavens for the souls that ascended them. Even today, these grand trees are regularly spared when forests are cut — it is a common event to see lone, isolated Ceiba trees proudly spreading their shady branches high above a pasture or agricultural field, a relict of the great forests that once were there.
Ceibas have had a long commercial history. During the 1940s the fluff, or kapok, that surrounds the seeds was harvested commercially for stuffing life preservers, seat cushions, mattresses and saddles. Being lighter than cotton, buoyant and resistant to saturation by water, it made an excellent filler for life preservers. Until the middle of the 1900’s, nearly every stuffed life preserver and upholstered automobile seat was filled with kapok fibers. As modern materials fell more in favor, demand for kapok fluff has fallen, and the Ceiba fruits are no longer harvested commercially. This is a blessing in disguise as deforestation of these trees has greatly diminished.
The trunks have been adapted for use as canoes. Indigenous peoples traditionally prized the Ceiba for constructing enormous dugout canoes out of the tree’s large and cylindrical trunk. The construction process normally takes months to complete, and may involve over a dozen men’s labor. For many villages nestled in the forests of the tropical lowlands, these giant canoes provide the only connection to their neighbors and the rest of the world, as they are plied on the winding waterways of the rain forest.
While the wood of Ceiba is soft and light, and thus not suitable for furniture, it has been used commercially for pulpwood and plywood. The low desirability of the wood however, may have been the Ceiba’s saving grace and one of the reason one still sees these giant trees gracing the tropical agricultural landscape.
The seeds of Ceiba are rich in oil (20%) and protein (26%). The edible oil can also be used for soap and lighting while the “seed-cake” leftover after pressing for oil can be used to feed livestock.