October’s Tree of the Month: Ceiba Pentandra

Known to English speakers as the Kapok tree and to Spanish speakers as the ceiba, or the bongo, the Ceiba pentandra is a tall, striking deciduous tree native to the Azuero peninsula.

Belonging to the Malvaceae family, the Ceiba pentandra can claim a number of other native Azuero tree species as family members, including the barrigón (Psuedobombax septenatum), the cuipo (Cavanillesia platanifolia), the cedro espino (Pachira quinata), and the balsa (Ochroma pyramidale).

The Ceiba is recognized for its considerable height and its buttressed base that provides extra support. Like its brother the cedro espino, the Ceiba oftentimes produces spikes on its trunk to discourage adventurous mammals from feeding on the bark or leaves of the tree. The leaves of the Ceiba are themselves distinctive, being alternate and palmately compound, with 5-8 leaflets radiating from a single point.

The buttress of the Ceiba helps support its sizable trunk c. National Parks of Singapore

When the Ceiba flowers, it is a major culinary event, and the menu attracts a diverse clientele. Each Ceiba can produce as much as 200 liters of nectar each season, and the flowers are visited day and night by a wide range of animals. Nocturnal diners include bats, monkeys, marsupials, butterflies, and moths, while the daytime hours are generally the domain of bees, wasps, and hummingbirds.

Though the flowers of the Ceiba are hermaphroditic, an internal security system prevents the tree from pollinating itself and producing offspring of poor genetic quality. As such, the trees rely on outside actors to transport pollen. Bats are particularly important pollinators for the Ceiba. Paternity studies of Ceiba trees on the banks of Amazon River have discovered considerable genetic mixing between trees on both sides of the wide and slow moving waterway. Scientists determined that bats were responsible for the long-distance pollination, with the flying mammals moving pollen more than 2 kilometers back and forth between riverbanks.

Flowers of the Ceiba pentandra c. Wikimedia Commons

In Panama, the Ceiba pentandra flowers between November and March, going on to form oblong green fruits on the end of its branches. Trees can produce anywhere between 500 and 4,000 fruits, which dry in the sun and burst open to reveal bunches of cotton-like fibers surrounding hundreds of individual seeds. With the first strong wind, the fluffy fibers take wing, bearing away the seeds to new locales. Thanks to its effective wind-dispersement system, the Ceiba is often one of the first trees to colonize the open areas of forests.

Downy fibers help Ceiba seeds catch a breeze c. Digital Musings

The Ceiba seeds’ high rate of germination (71% with untreated seeds) helps make the tree relatively simple to cultivate in nurseries. Protected seedlings grow quickly, with saplings growing to 40 centimeters in as little as 3 months. Mature Ceiba trees are usually some of the tallest in any forest, growing as many as 13 feet per year and reaching heights of 50 meters. One of the tallest living trees in Central America is a Ceiba found on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica that is over 80 meters tall.

The striking crown of the Ceiba pentandra c. Reinaldo Aguilar

The Ceiba pentandra grows in areas of low elevation in West Africa and throughout Central and South America, being found as far north as Mexico and as far south as Bolivia. It is a tree of great cultural significance for many different peoples in these regions.

For the Maya, the Ceiba pentandra is the tree of life. The Maya say that the roots of the Ceiba reach down into the chambers of the underworld and that the branches extend into the heavens.

Leaves of the Ceiba pentandra c. Carlos Navarro

In Trinidad and Tobago, “The Castle of the Devil” is a particular Ceiba pentandragrowing deep within the forest where it is said that the demon of death resides. Folkore tells of a carpenter who carved seven rooms inside the tree and tricked the demon Bazil into entering. Legend has it that Bazil resides in the tree to this day.

In South America, the Huaorani Indians say that the Amazon River was born from the water-filled trunk of a giant fallen Ceiba pentandra.

In West Africa, the Ceiba is known to the Senegalese as the “tree of words.” At one particular health clinic in Senegal, the sick often approach the roots of a nearby Ceiba to discuss their problems.

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For more folkloric tales of the Ceiba pentandra and other neotropical trees, click here.

For high-resolution photos of the flower, fruits, seeds, and leaves of the Ceiba pentandra, click here.

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