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

By Staff | Feb 4, 2015

First impression: Vibrant crimson, supersized daylily shaped flowers that sit in a leathery type cup. Oh gosh, oodles of long slender filaments explode from the middle of the bloom.

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 super beautiful blossoms in full bloom at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Upon further investigation: Bombax includes approximately 20 species of showy flowering trees. The red kapok is a non-native species whose origin is from China. Characteristically, the wide trunks of these trees are covered with varying sizes of thorns.

I have seen many different kapok trees and some of the thorns are quite large, close together and imposing. Our star’s thorns are less than one inch long, but still close together and numerous. It is a super large tree that can reach the height of 80 feet. Our tree is a deciduous tree that loses its leaves in order to bloom. Even without blossoms, it’s an attractive specimen with light greenish brown palmate leaves contrasting the soft gray bumpy bark.

The dimensional bark looks like it has millions of warts and is quite a conversation starter. The flowers consist of five large petals encasing 20-30 filaments just as long, colored red to yellow. The filaments are encased in a walnut sized dark brown cup. This cup was the buds encasement prebloom. What a fabulous way to invite birds as a pollinator, 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 flowers, the seed pods are woody capsules filled with a fibrous material that reminds me of pulled apart cotton fluff. It 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!


* Huge flowers with lots of blossoms

* Drought tolerant

* Attractive when blooming or non-blooming

* Thorns on trunk are a conversation starter

* Salt tolerant

* May inspire you to write a bestselling book

* Blooming brings in the birds

* Fast growing

* Restuff mattresses cheap


* Daily clean up flowers which are messy and large

* Non-native

* Nectar can drip from flowers

* Seed pods are messy

* Ouch thorns

* May grow tired of explaining cotton floss!

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

Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!