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Bombax ceibax

October 6, 2017
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

You all know that I love trees and what they do for us, a real tree hugger. To paraphrase Will Rogers, "I never met a tree I didn't like," but now I found one I wouldn't hug.

Bombax ceiba is called the red-silk cotton tree, sometimes thought to be the Kapok tree because it produces floss. The true Kapok, Ceiba pentandra, is not commonly found in Florida. Bombax ceibax is easily recognized by the trunk and branches covered with conical thorns, a really snaggy, hard to climb, even to lean upon trunk. This protects it from any marauding animals while a young thing as it grows straight and tall. Later, as old age sets in, the sharpness of the large thorns wear down, but are still noticeable.

It is found in India, South China; Taiwan, Myanmar to Vietnam; Philippines to Papua New Guinea; and Australia. In the United States, it is found in zone 10a-12b (minimum 30 degrees Fahrenheit), growing to be 80 feet (occasionally 100 feet) by 50 feet. It belongs to the Malvaceae family, subfamily is Bombacoideae, and the Genus is Bombax. Bombax is supposedly derived from the Greek word for "silk worm."

With a medium growth rate, it flowers for two full months in the beginning of the year, in January or February, or March and April intensely for 29 days. Being deciduous while flowering and fruiting, it is very messy in January to March with shedding leaves in the dry season before it flowers, and then with the blooms that last five to seven days, the petals drop from the short lived blooms. The flowers are five satiny, bright red (there are also pink or white flowering trees) cup forming petals, 6 to 7 inches long and 7 inches wide, born near the tips of the bare branches, singly or in clusters. What a sight to behold in the beginning months of the year, a real attention grabber.

There are multiple stamens loaded with nectar, making it attractive to bees and birds, especially crows. As the crows feed they pollinate the flowers. Because the flower's pollen attracts so many insects, crab spiders (my nemesis. I can watch those beautiful hard-shelled spiders weave their magical webs for a long length of time, and wait off to the sides for their prey - ah - but I digress) are occasionally spotted on them.

When you see a tree full of elongated cotton balls, this is the ripe fruit of the Bombax ceibax and why it is also called the cotton tree or red cotton tree. A white silk floss covers the tiny black seeds in the ball, then the wind disperses them in early May. The fibers are very much shorter than cottons', not long enough to be used in spinning, so it unusable for making cloth, but it has been used to stuff pillows, cushions and quilts.

If you are interested in growing such a tree, it definitely is not a house plant and you will need lots of outside ground to grow it. Consider its messiness, so plant it where it won't be a hazard. For dark green palmate leaves (that are often up to 24 inches long), it needs an acidic soil; alkaline soil induces yellowish leaves and a manganese deficiency. Young plants need fertilizing, but mature plants do not. Trees from seeds begin to flower when they are about 8 to 10 feet tall, reaching 30 feet in five years. You may need to fertilize the young trees, but mature trees don't need much encouragement. The Sri Lanka weevils will attack it, but no control measures are needed, as they only slightly damage the leaves, not harming the growth.

Wood from the tree is too soft to be used in construction, but makes great matchstick boxes and sticks, and moulds (not molds).

Playing a vital role in the culture of Southern China, it is the official flower of Gwongzau, the capital of Gwangzau Province. Elderly people gather the fallen blossoms off the ground to dry, later making soup and tea with them.

Stephen Brown has it in his collection of flowering trees, and if you want to see one, go to the Edison-Ford Estates, at 2153 Larchmont, adjacent to the overflow parking lot, there is one to behold.

Many people want to call it the Kapok tree, it is not. If you go to Clearwater, Florida, 921 N. McMullen Booth road to be exact, you can visit the Kapok Tree Inn and Gardens. Nurseryman Robert Hoyt planted a Bombax Malabaricum seed, a true Kapok, in 1870 and grew the tree in his orange grove and fruit stand across from his house. Later the Kapok Inn and Gardens encompassed the area; Kapok Special Events Center and Gardens were later formed for the public. The restaurant and inn closed in 1991, but the gardens, with Italian statues and landscaping, remain as a place to visit and a gathering place for many events. The grand ballroom overlooks a hidden lagoon. An enchanted place to visit and plan an event, indeed.

Its trees are very mature now and worthy of being noted. Thank one for all the many attributes they and other tree contribute to our health and wellbeing.

Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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