Herbs & Plants

Ceiba pentandra

Botanical Name: Ceiba pentandra
Family: Malvaceae
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Malvales
Genus: Ceiba
Species: C. pentandra

*Bombax cumanense Kunth
*Bombax mompoxense Kunth
*Bombax orientale Spreng.
*Bombax pentandrum L.
*Ceiba caribaea (DC.) A.Chev.
*Ceiba guineensis (Schumach.) A.Chev.
*Ceiba occidentalis (Spreng.) Burkill
*Ceiba thonningii A.Chev.
*Eriodendron caribaeum (DC.) G.Don

Common Names: Kapok Tree, Cotton Tree, Suma’ma, Java cotton, Java kapok, Silk-cotton

Habitat: Ceiba pentandra is native to S. America – Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, the Guyanas; north through C. America to Mexico; Caribbean; West tropical Africa. It grows in various types of moist evergreen and deciduous forests, including those subject to seasonal inundation, as well as in dry forests and gallery forests. As a pioneer species, it mostly occurs in secondary forests.

Ceiba pentandra is a fast growing deciduous Tree. It reaches up to 70 m in height and 3 m in trunk diameter. The trunk is buttressed and large simple thorns, similar to that of on many of the larger branches, are found on it. The crown is thin and pagoda shaped. The leaves are palmate, with 5 to 9 leaflets each. The flowers are pollinated by Bats, Moths, Bees. The plant is not self-fertile. Kapok produces several pods that contain seeds covered by fibre. Kapok fibre is yellowish in colour, light, very buoyant, water resistant, resilient, but very flammable.


A plant of the moist tropics, where it is found at elevations up to 1,200 metres, though productivity starts to decline above 460 metres. It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range 17 – 38c, but can tolerate 12 – 40 degree c. It can be killed by temperatures of -1c or lower. Fruiting can fail if the night temperature falls much below 20c. It prefers a mean annual rainfall in the range 1,500 – 2,500mm, but tolerates 750 – 5,700mm, 793. It can tolerate a dry season from 0 – 6 months long. It is believed that the tree originated in central America, but it can now be found pantropically between 16 degrees north and 16 degrees south. Kapok is the tallest native tree growing in Africa. Prefers a sunny position in a fertile, deep, moisture-retentive but well-drained loamy soil. Prefers a pH in the range 5.5 – 6.5, tolerating 5 – 7.5. Prefers a position sheltered from strong winds. A fast-growing tree, the annual increases in height and diameter during the first 10 years are about 120cm and 3 – 4cm respectively[. In forest gaps height growth may be 2 metres per year. The tree can begin to bear seeds, and therefore fibre, from the age of 4 – 5 years, with yields increasing up to about 8 years. The economical life of the plants is about 60 years. Leafing and flowering periods are more regular in drier parts of the distribution area; in moister areas, leafing and flowering periods are highly irregular. The flowers open at night and are senescent by midday. They emit a powerful odour and secrete nectar at the base of the large, bisexual flowers. The fruits ripen 80 – 100 days after flowering, the dehiscent types releasing kapok with loosely embedded seeds that are wind-dispersed. A single tree can bear 300 – 400 pods a year, yielding up to 20 kilos of fibre from about the age of 5 for over 50 years. The tree responds well to coppicing. The trees have vigorous rooting systems and are known to cause damage to buildings and roads if planted too close. Cultivated kapok is believed to be a natural hybrid between two varieties respectively native of tropical America and West Africa. The light seeds are widely disseminated and find ideal conditions for germination in abandoned agricultural land.

Edible Uses:
Edible portion: Seeds, Leaves, Calyces, Flowers, Vegetable, Fruit. Tender leaves, buds and fruit are mucilaginous and are eaten like okra (Abelmoschus moschatus). Seed – raw or cooked. Roasted and ground into a powder, it is eaten in soups and used as a flavouring. The seed can be sprouted and eaten raw or cooked in soups etc. One report says that the seed is toxic. A pleasant tasting cooking oil is extracted from the seed. Although the seed is toxic, the oil is edible. The oil has a yellow colour and a pleasant, mild odour and taste resembling cottonseed oil. It becomes rancid quickly when exposed to air. Flowers – blanched and eaten with chilli sauce. The dried stamens are added to curries and hot, sour soup for colouring. The wood ashes are used as a salt substitute. The resin from the trunk is put in water and drunk.

Medicinal Uses:
Kapok is an astringent, diuretic herb that lowers fevers, relaxes spasms and controls bleeding. The leaves contain several active compounds including derivatives of quercetin and kaempferol, tannins and caffeic acid. The leaves are abortifacient, alterative, emollient, laxative and sedative. They are used in the treatment of scabies, diarrhoea, coughs, hoarse throats, fatigue and lumbago. A decoction of the tender shoots is used as a contraceptive. Young leaves are warmed and mixed with palm oil to be eaten as a remedy for heart problems.. The leaf sap is drunk as a remedy for mental illness. The juice from bruised young branches is used in a preparation to treat asthma. Applied externally, the pounded leaves are used as a dressing on sores, sprains, tumours, abscesses, whitlows etc. The leaf sap is applied on skin infections. Leaf macerations are used in baths as a treatment against general fatigue, fevers, stiffness of the limbs, headache and bleeding of pregnant women. They are used as an eye-bath to treat conjunctivitis, remove foreign bodies from the eye and help heal wounds in the eye. The leaves can be picked at any time during the growing season and are used either fresh or dried. The bark and the leaves are used in the treatment of bronchial congestion. Externally, they are used in baths to treat fevers and headaches. The root and stem barks are credited with emetic and antispasmodic properties. A decoction of the stem bark is taken to treat stomach problems, diarrhoea, hernia, gonorrhoea, heart trouble, oedema, fever, asthma and rickets. Macerations of the bark are said to be a cure for heart trouble and hypertension, and are credited with stimulant and anthelmintic properties. Stem bark decoctions are used in mouth washes for treating toothache and mouth problems, they are also applied on swollen fingers, wounds, sores, furuncles and leprous macules. The bark, often as a powder, is used as a treatment on wounds. A decoction of the bark is used as a wash to treat fevers. The bark is usually harvested in the dry season. The gum is abortifacient and astringent. It is eaten to relieve stomach upset. It is also taken internally to control abnormal uterine bleeding, dysentery and diarrhoea in children. The gum is harvested from incisions made into the trunk of young trees, made as the sap is rising at the end of the dry season. A decoction of the boiled roots is used to treat oedema, diarrhoea, dysentery, dysmenorrhoea and hypertension. The decoction is also said to be oxytocic. The root forms part of preparations that are used to treat leprosy. The flowers are emollient. They are used as a remedy for constipation. The fruit is emollient. The powdered fruit is taken with water as a remedy for intestinal parasites and stomach-ache. The seed floss is used for cleaning wounds. The seed oil is rubbed in to affected areas to relieve rheumatism, and is also applied to heal wounds.

Other Uses:
Seaside tree, Public open spaces, Xerophytic. Agroforestry Uses: A large, fast-growing pioneer species, it cannot germinate in the dense forest, requiring light in order to thrive. It can be used in reforestation projects for native woodland, but is probably too large and long-lived for woodland gardens. The tree is an important source of honey and is also suitable for soil erosion control and watershed protection. In agroforestry, it has been grown to supply shade for coffee and cacao, whilst in Java it is used as a support for pepper plants (Piper spp.). Other Uses \ it is indispensable in hospitals, since mattresses can be dry sterilized without losing their original quality. It is light (one eighth the weight of cotton), water repellent and buoyant, making it ideal for life jackets, lifeboats and other naval safety apparatus. It is an excellent thermal insulator, being used in iceboxes, refrigerators, cold-storage plants, offices, theatres and aeroplanes. It is also a very good sound absorber and is widely used for acoustic insulation. The seed contains 20-25% non-drying oil, similar to cottonseed oil. It is used as a lubricant, illuminant, in soap manufacturing and in cooking. The main fatty acids are palmitic acid (10 – 16%), stearic acid (2 – 9%), oleic acid (49 – 53%) and linoleic acid (26 – 29%). The ash of the wood is rich in potash and can be used in making soap. The bark is used for making hut walls and doors. A gum and a reddish brown dye are obtained from the bark. The heartwood is variable in colour, from creamy white to light brown, often with greyish veins, but sap-staining fungi may darken it; it is not clearly demarcated from the sapwood. The grain is interlocked, sometimes irregular; the texture coarse; growth rings are prominent; the silica content is low. The wood is soft, weak and very light in weight; it is extremely vulnerable to decay when in contact with the soil and is also susceptible to termites. Both logs and lumber are very susceptible to insect and fungal attack, but preservation treatment is easy. The wood seasons normally, with only a slight risk of checking or distortion; once dry it is poorly to moderately stable in service. It machines easily but not satisfactorily, leaving surfaces fuzzy – tools should be kept very sharp; nailing and screwing are poor; gluing is correct. The wood is easy to peel for veneer. A low quality timber, the reported uses of the wood include for plywood, packaging, lumber core stock, light construction, boxes and crates, cheap furniture, matches, pulp and paper products. Traditionally, it is used for canoes, rafts and farm implements. Although it has been recorded to be used for fuel, it is not considered very suitable for this purpose because it only smoulders

Known Hazards:
The seeds, and the oil, contain cyclopropenoid fatty acids such as malvalic acid (7 – 8%) and sterculic acid (3%), which cause abnormal physiological reactions in animals. Therefore the consumption of kapok seeds or seed oil should be discouraged unless the cyclopropenoid acids have been chemically removed. Kapok fibre is irritating to the eyes, nose and throat, and workers exposed to kapok dust for long periods may develop chronic bronchitis. (Plant has spines or sharp edges; use extreme caution when handling )

Disclaimer : The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.


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