In the forests of the Amazon basin, where the sheer scale of life in the form of countless species of flora and fauna can be overwhelming, the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) is a true giant. It is believed that it can grow up to 13 feet (4 meters) in a single year.
As an emergent species, it rises above the forest canopy 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 can be found beyond South America, throughout the Neotropics from southern Mexico to the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, including the state protected 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, the kapok’s great height means its seeds are blown enormous 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 at a time, 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 fly from one tree to another to feed upon their nectar, they facilitate pollination.
The trunk of a kapok tree can expand to a circumference of more than 30 feet (10 meters). Encountering a kapok tree during a forest walk 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 the kapok is home to a range of species, including frogs, snakes, birds, epiphytes and bromeliads. Mammals are able to use the massive branches as highways.
Traditionally, the lightweight wood of the kapok has been used to carve dugout canoes, while 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 size and the sculptural elegance of its structure, traditionally the kapok has been regarded as a sacred tree by native cultures throughout the regions where it thrives. 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 ascended to the celestial world via its great branches.