Ceiba speciosa

The floss silk tree is native to South America. It is sometimes called kapok, but that name more correctly refers to Ceiba pentandra. Like kapok, the fibre from the fruit of Ceiba speciosa is also sometimes used for packing materials, but the fibres are short and not suitable for weaving.

The Buenos Aires street tree in the second image shows the strange spikes on the trunk. These are poorly understood, but according to the Wikipedia article they hold water for dry periods. Young trees have chlorophyll in the bark, giving the tree the ability to photosynthesize when leaves are absent. The trunk has a bottle shape and often leans. I have not found the reference, but would guess that this is the origin of the Spanish common name, palo borracho (drunken tree).

Ceiba speciosa puts forth quite a show when it blooms and is used as an ornamental tree in warm climates. The University of Florida Extension has a good fact sheet about the tree (and shows the flowers, which were not present during my visit in Argentina.) Be sure to check out the flower and fruit pictures at the bottom of the page.

Ceiba speciosa
Ceiba speciosa trunk

24 responses to “Ceiba speciosa”

  1. Annie Morgan

    Fascinating tree trunk – wouldn’t want to have to climb it to escape wild dogs or something.
    The fluff on the top picture is really weird. Looks like the stuff has just accidentally blown there from afar.

  2. holly

    The puffs in the first picture look so awkward you’d think the image was simply a display of bad Photoshopping.

  3. Julie

    This species has definite bi-polar tendencies (excuse the anthropormorphism) – soft and fluffy on top – spiky and hard below. Nature never fails to surprise and delight does it?

  4. Island Jim

    I have a picture of the flowers if anyone’s interested…

  5. EJ

    Is it not spinning the fibers aren’t suited for?
    Such an interesting tree! Thanks for posting.

  6. Morris B.

    Sorry, I must be retired too long now but all the year that I was Staff in the Botany Dept. at San Diego State University and all the years that I had my own Nursery Business and did Plant Pathology Consultations over the years — those picture of yours are pictures of the creature I knew as bein Chorisia speciosa, also known as the Floss Silk Tree or as they called it at my Nursery, The Wife Beater Tree! The Horticulturalist at Balbo Park even started referring to them as “Wife Beater” after we started selling them as such after the failure of the ERA attempt in the ’70s & 80’s.
    Oops, time to smile! morris

  7. Pierre Crozat

    when I was a kid (30 years ago) we used to have pillows that were filled with kapok…I don’t know what kapok it was but it was really unconfortable and lumpy!

  8. Cambree

    Wow, what a neat looking tree. The trunk is scary! The fluffy cotton like debris stuck in the branch is so cool.
    You can use it to stuff dolls or something.
    Island Jim, I would love to see a picture of the flower. Do you have a link to it? Thanks!

  9. Cambree

    Oh wait, I remember this tree. I’ve seen it at Target shopping center in Cupertino, Ca. I have always wonder what was the name of this neat tree.
    Link to flower here – http://www.flickr.com/photos/32454422@N00/2085631489

  10. Karthik

    I see that this is in the same family (Malvaceae) as the Bombax genus cotton trees. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombax_malabaricum).
    I am not a botanist. Can anyone explain why there are two different genera for cotton-producing trees?
    Thanks

  11. Cody

    Hi Eric, love the recent posts. Many thanks for taking over the duty from Daniel. Many of us appreciate it very much.
    I am curious about something I noticed in your post today. From considerable field work in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, I am under the impression that Ceiba pentandra is in fact native to the New World. But in the description of C. speciosa above, you assert that C. pentandra is native to Asia… So, which one of us is wrong?

  12. Cody

    Karthik,
    The same reason there are multiple genera for trees with yellow flowers, or trees with white latex sap, etc. Almost all modern classifications are based on evolutionary relatedness. In this case, the Ceiba speciosa is more closely related to other Ceiba species than it is to and Bombax species, even though it shares their cotton-producing tendencies. Hope that helps.

  13. jan phillips

    Aha, I am pretty sure I have seen this tree or one very like it (with the trunk spikes) in the tropical biome at the Eden Project here in Cornwall. The ants seem to like it a lot.

  14. Roy Smith

    Is this the ‘drunken forest’ tree referred to in Gerald Durrell’s book of the same name?

  15. Judy

    Hi, This is the first time for our family writing a comment. It’s not scientific but my 9 year old son looked at the picture of the trunk and said it looks like “chocolate chips.” We are sure learning a lot from the pictures and the information. THANKS!

  16. Alina

    Hi Cody,
    I agree with you. I am almost pretty sure that Ceiba pentandra is native to the Neotropics.
    Cheers,
    Alina.

  17. Eric La Fountaine

    Cody and Alina, you are correct. I am sorry. I was writing in haste. The species is widely cultivated in Asia, but not native. Ceiba pentandra.

  18. Liquidfury1

    I know this tree also as Chorisia speciosa…it grew as a street tree outside my office in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
    It had pink flowers though and they did not look like cotton balls such as the picture shows!! Same trunk characteristics.

  19. Barbara Lamb

    We use kapok to fill our zafu – cushions used for meditation in the zendo. Neat to see its source!

  20. Juliana Pereira

    I am absolutely passionate about these trees! It was the first species that I ever germinated and planted arroud the city of São Paulo – Brazil. Have lots of pictures (http://www.panoramio.com/user/3229927), an special article (http://arvoresvivas.wordpress.com/?s=paineiras&searchbutton=go!)
    Chorisia’s are like mothers of the forest to me! I love to look to their trunks and see similaryties to our human body!!!
    Very glad to have lots of new information about it!! Have a nice week everynoe!

  21. Annette

    This tree is in Mar Vista, CA! I accidentally bumped into last nite and tore up the palm of my hand! Ouch!! Miserable!

  22. John Vernon

    I had two giant ones (18″ D and 100′ high) near the Arrow Head Country club in San Berdoo, CA, and learned of it at “Hunting Gardens, Pasadina”, where it had a 4′ trunk D, and they explaned thee “Nick name — The Wife Beater Tree”. They are one of the most beautiful of the flowering trees, in august and september, after all of the leaves have fallen — they cover the lawn with orchid like, peach colored, 4-6″ blooms,while on the tree they are growing wild on new “sprigs” over the entire full covered tree. During the winter months, the avacado shaped cotten seed pods develop to coconut size, begin popping in spring, when the “dandeline” like puffs carry the pea size seed in the wind. The seeds sprout easily in the wattered lawn or in planter soil and I have a dozen of them growing now in San Mateo. (If you want one, ask me!!!) They do take a few years before blossems start. Enjoy (I forgot to say that I take the very dangerous spikes off on young trunks by rubbing up and down with heavy leather gloves –they do grow back eventually!) The spikes on the older trees do pop off with a larger rubbing bar to make them safer in the yard.

  23. John Vernon

    I had two giant ones (18″ D and 100′ high) near the Arrow Head Country club in San Berdoo, CA, and learned of it at “Hunting Gardens, Pasadina”, where it had a 4′ trunk D, and they explaned thee “Nick name — The Wife Beater Tree”. They are one of the most beautiful of the flowering trees, in august and september, after all of the leaves have fallen — they cover the lawn with orchid like, peach colored, 4-6″ blooms,while on the tree they are growing wild on new “sprigs” over the entire full covered tree. During the winter months, the avacado shaped cotten seed pods develop to coconut size, begin popping in spring, when the “dandeline” like puffs carry the pea size seed in the wind. The seeds sprout easily in the wattered lawn or in planter soil and I have a dozen of them growing now in San Mateo. (If you want one, ask me!!!) They do take a few years before blosems start. Enjoy (I forgot to say that I take the very dangerous spikes off on young trunks by rubbing up and down with heavy leather gloves –they do grow back eventually!) The spikes on the older trees do pop off with a larger rubbing bar to make them safer in the yard – the wives could only have shaped up after one experience with this type of “beating”, (wicked men of the jungle). My trees are much more “symetricle” with a tall straight trunk, organized shape, but with very soft wood that is suseptable to high winds. Unlike the picture, the pods on my trees broke open one or two at a time over several months, with segments of the “rind” shriveling, and falling off continuoualy until they all dissapeared.

  24. John Vernon

    I had two giant ones (18″ D and 100′ high) near the Arrow Head Country club in San Berdoo, CA, and learned of it at “Huntington Gardens, Pasadina”, where it had a 4′ trunk D, and they explaned thee “Nick name — The Wife Beater Tree”. They are one of the most beautiful of the flowering trees, in august and september, after all of the leaves have fallen — they cover the lawn with orchid like, peach colored, 4-6″ blooms,while on the tree they are growing wild on new “sprigs” over the entire full covered tree. During the winter months, the avacado shaped cotten seed pods develop to coconut size, begin popping in spring, when the “dandeline” like puffs carry the pea size seed in the wind. The seeds sprout easily in the wattered lawn or in planter soil and I have a dozen of them growing now in San Mateo. (If you want one, ask me!!!) They do take a few years before blosems start. Enjoy (I forgot to say that I take the very dangerous spikes off on young trunks by rubbing up and down with heavy leather gloves –they do grow back eventually!) The spikes on the older trees pop off with a larger rubbing bar to make them safer in the yard – the wives could only have shaped up after one experience with this type of “beating”, (wicked men of the jungle). My trees are much more “symetricle” with a tall straight trunk, organized shape, but with very soft wood that is suseptable to high winds. Unlike the picture, the pods on my trees broke open one or two at a time over several months, with segments of the “rind” shriveling, and falling off continuoualy until they all dissapeared.

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