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What’s Blooming in Paradise?: Red Kapok Tree (Bombax ceiba)

By Staff | Mar 24, 2011

First impression: Vibrant crimson and large daylily shaped flowers that sit in a leathery type cup. Oodles of long slender filaments are nestled in the middle of the bloom, and terminate in the cup. The absence of leaves makes gazing at this flower-laden massive tree — quite breathtaking. Leafless I notice architecturally gorgeous bones with large tapering limbs and a substantial trunk all in cement-gray bark. Touching the trunk can be painful: rows of thorns adorn it. The barbs can’t stop you from admiring its generous showering of red blossoms in full bloom at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Upon further investigation: Bombax includes approximately 20 species of showy flowering trees. Our Red Kapok is a non-native species, whose origin is China, Characteristically, the wide trunks of these trees are covered with varying sizes of thorns. Our star is a superlarge tree that can reach a height of 80 feet. It has a natural spreading crown which, from a distance, draws your eye. The Kapok tree is a deciduous tree that loses its leaves in order to bloom. Even without blossoms, it’s an attractive tree with light greenish brown palmate leaves contrasting with the soft gray bumpy bark. The dimensional bark looks like warts and is quite a conversation starter. The trunk is bulbous and unique.

I detect no fragrance from the velvety smooth, dark-red and goldenish blossoms. The flowers consist of five large petals encasing 20-30 filaments just as long, colored red to yellow. These filaments are encased in a walnut sized dark brown cup. This cup was the buds encasement pre- bloom. What a fabulous way to invite birds as pollinators, with sweet refreshing nectar waiting in this cup. Birds flock to the flowers and then shake their tail feathers to pollinate with the next drink. Post-flowering, the seed pods are woody capsules filled with a fibrous material that reminds me of pulled-apart cotton fluff. t is quite a novelty to discover white fluff blowing all over your garden. Guess what? Its seeds are attached to this billowy substance, which makes dispersing very easy. In days gone by the fluff was used to stuff floatation devices and mattresses.

There are many mystical stories surrounding the Kapok tree, usually involving heaven and hell (the thorns and the flowers). We are more familiar and fond of the children’s book, “The Great Kapok Tree,” by Lynne Cherry. It’s a beautiful book that explains the ecological importance of saving the rain forests. I can relate first-hand to the inspiration of the Kapok Tree, especially in bloom!

Pros: Huge flowers with lots of blossoms – Drought tolerant- Attractive when blooming or non-blooming – Easy to maintain/prune – Thorns on trunk are a conversation starter – Salt tolerant – May inspire a bestselling book – Blooming brings in the birds – Fast growing – Re stuff mattresses cheap.

Cons: Daily clean up flowers which are messy and large – Non-native status – Nectar can drip from flowers – Seed pods are messy – Ouch! thorns – May grow tired of explaining cotton floss – Blooming brings in the birds.

Conclusion: Best place to get the wow factor is start at a distance then approach slowly. You get to see, this artist’s-palette floral display of cadmium scarlet with a gorgeous cerulean blue sky background in a tropical, eye-catching garden location.

Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!