The Kapok (Ceiba pentandra (L.) Gaertn., 1791) is an arboreal species belonging to the Bombacaceae family.
From the systematic point of view it belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, Kingdom Plantae, Magnoliophyta Division, Magnoliopsida Class, Malvales Order, Bombacaceae Family and therefore to the Genus Ceiba and to the C. pentandra Species.
The terms are synonymous:
– Bombax guineensis Schum. & Thonn .;
– Eastern Bombax Spreng .;
– Bombax pentandrum L .;
– Ceiba guineensis (Thonn.) A. Chev .;
– Ceiba thonningii A. Chev .;
– Eriodendron anfractuosum DC .;
– Eriodendron caribaeum G. Don;
– Eriodendron guineense G. Don.
The term Ceiba is the Latinized form of the vernacular name (pronounced sayba) of this plant used by the Taino natives of the Caribbean and South America.
The specific pentandra epithet comes from the Greek πέντε pénte cinque and from ἀνήρ, ἀνδρός aner, andrόs male, male element: with five stamens.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Kapok is a widely distributed plant and is believed to be native to Central America.
We find it in the following countries:
– in North America: Mexico Central America: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Caribbean (Barbados, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe and Martinique, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico);
– in the northern part of South America: French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina;
– in Africa: Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Cameroon, Gabon, Rwanda, Zaire, Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Furthermore, this plant was introduced, and is now naturalized, in Asia, in particular in Java, in Thailand, in Ceylon, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in the Philippines; also in Sicily they are present in various areas, such as in Palermo, in the Luigi Capuana Comprehensive Institute. It is also present in at least 6 specimens in the town of Positano where it was introduced about 60 years ago by an Argentine tourist who went to a hotel in the village who gave a small shrub to the owner of the hotel. The tree in the garden is still visible from the main street of the city.
Its habitat is tropical where it is found at altitudes up to 1,200 meters.
Ceiba pentandra is a tree that reaches a height of 60–70 m and has a massive trunk that reaches 3 m in diameter.
The trunk as well as many of the wider branches are densely covered with large and sturdy thorns.
It has leaves consisting of 5 to 9 smaller leaflets, each up to 20 cm long.
The flowers open at night and are senescent at noon. They emit a strong odor and secrete nectar at the base of large bisexual flowers.
Adult trees produce several hundred fruits, containing numerous seeds surrounded by a woolly and yellowish fiber consisting of lignin and cellulose.
Kapok is a plant typically found in the humid tropics, where it grows up to 1,200 meters, although productivity begins to decline beyond 460 meters.
It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are between 17 and 38 ° C, but can tolerate limits of 12 – 40 ° C.
The plant can die in temperatures of -1 ° C or lower.
Furthermore, fruiting can fail if the night temperature drops much below 20 ° C.
It is a tree that prefers an average annual rainfall of between 1,500 and 2,500 mm, but tolerates limits of 750 – 5,700 mm.
It can tolerate a dry season of 0 to 6 months.
Kapok is the tallest native tree that grows in Africa; it prefers a sunny position in a fertile, deep soil, which retains moisture but well drained and with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, tolerating limits of 5 – 7.5. Finally, it prefers a position sheltered from strong winds.
The Kapok is a fast growing tree, the annual increases in height and diameter during the first 10 years are respectively about 120 cm and 3-4 cm; moreover, in forest gaps, the growth in height can be 2 meters per year.
The tree can start producing seeds, and therefore fiber, from the age of 4-5, with yields increasing up to around 8 years. The economic life of the plants is about 60 years.
The periods of vegetation and flowering are more regular in the driest parts of the distribution area; in humid areas, the periods of vegetation and flowering are very irregular.
The fruits ripen 80-100 days after flowering, the dehiscent types release the seeds, loosely incorporated, which are dispersed by the wind.
A single tree can yield 300-400 pods per year, producing up to 20 pounds of fiber from around 5 years old for over 50 years.
It is a tree that responds well to coppice and has vigorous roots and is known to cause damage to buildings and roads if planted too close.
It is also believed that cultivated kapok is a natural hybrid between two varieties originating from tropical America and West Africa respectively.
Customs and Traditions –
The leaves, sprouts, tender fruits and seeds are eaten as well as the oil obtained from the seeds is used in the kitchen.
From a medicinal point of view, Kapok is an astringent and diuretic herb that lowers fever, relaxes spasms and controls bleeding.
The leaves contain several active compounds including quercetin and kaempferol derivatives, tannins and caffeic acid.
The leaves are abortive, alterative, emollient, laxative and sedative. They are used in the treatment of scabies, diarrhea, cough, hoarse throat, fatigue and low back pain.
A decoction of tender shoots is used as a contraceptive.
The young leaves are heated and mixed with palm oil to be consumed as a remedy for heart problems.
The sap of the leaves is drunk as a remedy for mental illness.
The juice of young macerated branches is used in a preparation for the treatment of asthma.
The crushed leaves, applied externally, are used as a dressing on sores, sprains, tumors, abscesses, etc.
The sap from the leaves is applied to skin infections.
Leaf macerations are used in baths as a treatment against general fatigue, fevers, limb stiffness, headaches and bleeding in pregnant women; They are also 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 harvested at any time during the growing season and are used fresh or dried.
The bark and leaves are used in the treatment of bronchial congestion.
Externally, they are used in bathrooms to treat fevers and headaches.
Emetic and antispasmodic properties are attributed to the barks of the root and stem.
To treat stomach problems, diarrhea, hernia, gonorrhea, heart disease, edema, fever, asthma and rickets, a decoction of the bark of the stem is taken.
Macerations of the cortex are said to be a cure for heart problems and hypertension and are credited with stimulating and antihelminthic properties.
Stem bark decoctions are used in mouth washes to treat toothache and mouth problems; they are also applied on swollen fingers, wounds, sores, boils and leprous spots.
The bark, often in powder form, is used as a wound treatment.
A decoction of the bark is used as a wash to treat fever, and the bark is usually harvested in the dry season.
Gum is abortive and astringent. It is consumed to relieve stomach pain. It is also taken internally to control abnormal uterine bleeding, dysentery and diarrhea in children.
The gum is harvested from the incisions made in the trunk of young trees, made as the sap rises at the end of the dry season.
A decoction of boiled roots is used to treat edema, diarrhea, dysentery, dysmenorrhea and hypertension.
The decoction is also said to be oxytocic.
The root is part of the preparations used to treat leprosy. The flowers are emollient. They are used as a remedy for constipation.
The fruit is also emollient. Fruit powder should be taken with water as a remedy for intestinal parasites and stomach pain.
Seed oil is rubbed on the affected parts to relieve rheumatism and is also applied to heal wounds.
This species also plays an important role for agroforestry uses.
It is a fast-growing pioneer species but cannot germinate in dense forest, requiring light to thrive. It can be used in reforestation projects for native woodlands, 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 for the protection of watersheds.
In agroforestry it has been cultivated to provide shade for coffee and cocoa, while in Java it is used as a support for pepper plants (Piper spp.).
The fiber of the inner wall of the fruit is unique as it combines elasticity and resilience and is resistant to parasites, making it ideal for stuffing pillows, mattresses and cushions; it is indispensable in hospitals, as the mattresses can be dry sterilized without losing their original quality. It is light (one eighth the weight of cotton), water repellent and buoyant, ideal for life jackets, lifeboats and other marine safety devices.
It is an excellent thermal insulator, being used in iceboxes, refrigerators, cold rooms, offices, theaters and airplanes.
It is also an excellent sound absorber and is widely used for sound insulation.
The seed contains 20-25% non-drying oil, similar to cottonseed oil.
It is used as a lubricant, brightener, in soap making 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%).
Wood ash is rich in potassium and can be used to make soap.
The bark is used to make walls and doors of huts.
From the bark, a gum and a reddish-brown dye are obtained.
The heartwood varies in color, from creamy white to light brown, often with greyish veins, but the fungi that stain the sap can darken it; it is not clearly delimited by the sapwood. The fiber is intertwined, sometimes irregular; the coarse consistency; the growth rings are prominent; the silica content is low. The wood is soft, weak and very light; it is extremely vulnerable to decomposition in contact with the soil and is also susceptible to termites. Both logs and timber are very susceptible to insect and fungal attacks, but conservation treatment is easy. Wood cures normally, with only a slight risk of shrinkage or distortion; when dry it is poorly to moderately stable in service.
Wood is easy to peel for veneer. A low-quality lumber, the wood’s reported uses include plywood, packaging, lumber stocks, lightweight construction, boxes and crates, inexpensive furniture, matches, pulp, and paper products. Traditionally it is used for canoes, rafts and agricultural tools.
Kapok, with its density of 0.35 g / cm³, is the lightest natural fiber in the world. Kapok is a hollow fiber 2 to 4 cm long, with approximately 80% of air incorporated. This characteristic has led for a long time to believe that it is impossible to spin kapok. The fibers are extracted by hand from 10/15 cm long pods. Until recently its use was limited to the padding of mattresses, quilts and upholstery, but now after developments in spinning, some clothing companies have introduced kapok into their collections mainly producing trousers. It is a totally organic fiber as it grows spontaneously in nature. Particularly suitable for allergy sufferers.
The pollen of C. pentandra flowers is appreciated by many species of animals both nocturnal (bats, small marsupials, monkeys, and moths) and diurnal (bees, hummingbirds), but the main pollinator work is carried out by two species of bats : Phyllostomus hastatus and Phyllostomus discolor.
Preparation Method –
Leaves, shoots and tender fruits are mucilaginous and are eaten like okra (Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench).
The seeds are eaten raw or cooked, roasted and ground into powder, and are consumed in soups and used as a condiment.
The seeds can be sprouted from the sprouts eaten raw or cooked in soups.
According to some authors, the seeds are toxic.
A pleasant tasting cooking oil is extracted from the seed.
Although the seed is toxic, the oil is still edible.
The flowers are blanched and eaten with chilli sauce.
Dried stamens are added to curry and hot, sour soup to add color.
Wood ash is used as a substitute for salt.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (edited by), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
Warning: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.