Kapok (Ceiba pentandra)
The kapok tree has long been considered sacred by the indigenous peoples of America. The Mayans believe that the kapok, which they call ceiba, (pronounced say-bah) is the tree of life whose roots extend to the underworld and whose branches hold up the heavens. It is often planted in the center of their plazas and villages and is rarely cut down even if it happens to be in an inconvenient location.
The Taino, who were the inhabitants of the Caribbean at the time of Columbus' arrival, had a spiritual relationship with the kapok. Because of its great size, its tendency to grow straight, and because the wood is soft and more easily worked using primitive stone tools, the kapok or ceiba was chosen to make the great canoes used by the Taino to travel from island to island. Before cutting down a ceiba, the Tainos needed a sign that the tree spirit was amenable to being transformed. According to Taino myth, the tree would talk to the woodsmen and tell them if it was all right to cut it down. The tree spirit would also specify how it would like to be carved and painted. Those who were involved in chopping down these trees would then have a life-long responsibility to care for the transformed spirits and to make offerings to them.
The kapok is known by different names in different parts of the Caribbean. In the BVI it is called the silk cotton tree. Some down islanders call it the jumbie tree. In Mexico, Central and South America it is called the ceiba. The scientific name, Ceiba pentandra, comes from the Taino word for the tree pronounced tsayee-baa.
The kapok can reach heights of over 150 feet and in hot, wet and sunny environments can grow as much as ten feet in a year.
On the Caribbean island of Antigua an immense 300-year-old kapok tree has become a tourist attraction. There is a large hollow area at the base of the trunk where as many as twenty people can stand completely inside the ancient tree.
A buttressed root system effectively supports the kapok. The buttresses, which can extend out over 30 feet from the main trunk, allow the tree to resist all but the most forceful hurricanes. They also serve to store moisture, providing a reserve water supply for the kapok during periods of extended drought, common on many Caribbean islands.
The complex of tall oddly shaped buttresses can also serve other purposes depending on one's imagination. For example children use them to play games, such as "house" or "hide and seek" and others use them for overnight shelter by placing a tarp or canvas between two buttresses.
On the dark side, a Mayan legend warns of the evil Xtabay woman who hides in the buttresses at night and emerges to seduce and kill young men who are bewitched by her beauty.
When the kapok is young, the trunk develops pointy, conical spines about an inch to an inch and a half long, which earn the young kapok the name "monkey no climb". (Three other local trees, the Yellow Prickle, the White Prickle and the Sandbox tree have spiny trunks and are also referred to by the same nickname.) The spines serve to protect the young trees against animals. When the kapok gets large enough it stops producing the spines and the original ones gradually wear away.
Once a year all the leaves of the kapok fall off the tree and about every five to ten years large, white to pinkish, bell-shaped flowers are produced after the tree is leafless. The flowers open up in the early evening about fifteen minutes after sunset. Although human beings usually find the flower to have a foul odor, bats are attracted to the fragrance and arrive during the night to suck the nectar and in the morning bees finish off any of the nectar not already consumed by the bats.
The flower then develops into a fruit or seedpod about six
inches long. The pod is filled with brown seeds and cotton-like,
Indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin used to wrap the kapok floss around the back of their poison darts so that they could be blown forcefully out of long blowguns.
The kapok fiber is still used in many parts of the world to stuff furniture and mattresses. In Indonesia, for example, most people sleep on kapok mattresses.
The kapok is often associated with the supernatural. In Africa, the kapok is also considered sacred. It is said that sleeping on pillows made of kapok cotton will bring good luck, purify and empower your material and spiritual energy and bring good dreams and saintly vibrations. Slaves brought to the Caribbean often slept on mattresses and pillows stuffed with kapok. Interestingly enough, this custom was often shunned by white planters and plantation overseers who believed that sleeping on kapok pillows brought about nightmares.
If you want to see a beautiful kapok tree on St. John, one can be found on the Reef Bay Trail. It is well marked by the National Park Service sign quoted above. Remember to avoid the evil Xtabay woman, however, if for some reason you find yourself there after sunset.