In the Amazon basin, where the sheer scale of life on Earth can be overwhelming, the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) is a true giant of the forest. It is believed that it can grow up to 13 feet (4 meters) in a single year.
As an emergent species, it rises to heights of 150 or even 200 feet (50 – 60 meters), seeking to outgrow neighboring species in the essential battle for light fought among all the trees of the world’s tropical forests. A highly successful species, the kapok has spread from South America and is found throughout the Neotropics, from southern Mexico to the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, including Tambopata National Reserve and our own Tambopata Ecolodge Private Conservation Area. It also grows in West Africa, the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago.
A deciduous species, shedding all its leaves in the dry season, its enormous height means its seeds are blown great distances, where they quickly colonize new areas of forest. The success of the kapok is due to its ability to produce as many as four thousand fruits, each containing up to two hundred seeds.
Remarkably, the unpleasant odor emitted by the pink and white blossom of the kapok attracts bats, and as these mammals flit from one tree to another to feed upon nectar, they facilitate pollination.
The trunk of a kapok tree may expand to a circumference of more than 30 feet (10 meters). Encountering a kapok tree when walking in the forest is a particularly special experience; their enormous bulk is supported by buttresses recalling those employed in the high gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. These buttresses can extend up to 30 feet from the main trunk. The elaborate structure of this massive tree is home to a range of species, including frogs, snakes, birds, epiphytes and bromeliads. Mammals are able to use the massive branches as highways.
While the lightweight wood of the kapok has been used traditionally to carve dugout canoes, the fiber found within its seedpods is valued in the modern world. Known as “silk cotton”, it is said to be the world’s lightest natural fiber, and its thermo-regulating properties have led to its use in pillows and duvets. The seeds, leaves, bark and sap of the kapok tree have been employed by indigenous peoples for hundreds of years, in the treatment of a range of maladies, including dysentery, fever and kidney ailments.
Unsurprisingly, given its huge bulk and the sculptural elegance of its structure, the kapok has been regarded as a sacred tree by native cultures throughout the regions of the world where it has thrived. In parts of the Caribbean, it is known variously as the “god tree” or “devil tree”, while in Mesoamerica the Mayan culture believed that the souls of the dead would ascend to the celestial world via its great branches.