"Can you find the face on the wrinkled gray elephant
hide tree trunk? Notice how broken or cut off limb stubs (once
used for turtle decoys) have healed over - a good adaptation against
infection and decay of the whole tree. Planters and slaves slept
on mattresses stuffed with the fluffy silk cotton fiber from the
seedpods. Centuries ago Arawak and Carib families migrated through
the islands in huge dugout ceibas or boats made of the balsa-like
wood. The buttressed root system may be another adaptation to help
provide moisture and support for the mature tree." (From the National
Park Service sign on the Reef Bay Trail.
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 also
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 was
chosen to make the great canoes used
by the Taino to travel from island to island. Before cutting down
a kapok, 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
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.
On the island of Vieques,
there is also a ceiba that has become a tourist attraction.
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,
Before being replaced by cheaper synthetics, the
kapok fiber, which is eight times lighter than cotton and five
times more buoyant than cork was used as the floatation for life
preservers. In addition to these attributes the kapok fiber is
totally water repellent and resistant to rot.
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
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