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The longish pods sometimes open on the tree and the white fiber that cover the black seeds blow off in the wind. The tree sheds leaves in summer. From a distance, pods would look like brown bats hanging on dead branches.
In Kerala, this tree is known as panjimaram or seemapool. The botanical name is Ceiba pentandra Linn. (Please verify this.) It is also called kapok tree. Some of the names in Indian languages are semal, tella buruga, panji tannaku, shweta shalmali, safed savara, and schwetsimul.
The tree normally grows to a height of more than 50’. While it is young, the bark is green and has thorns, but turns brown as the tree grows older. White flowers bloom on the ends of the branches. There is also a tree of the same family, which has red flowers.
The floss or cotton from the pods is used to stuff mattresses, pillows and cushions. The fiber does not have sufficient strength to be spun into yarn or woven into cloth.
Separating the seeds and the floss is a messy affair. It is done by churning the contents of the pods. At Olavipe we have a man called Outha, a jack of all trades, who is an expert in handling this job. When he is finished with it Outha would look like a faded photograph with the fiber all over him. Not enough to make him look like a snowman though.
Till doing some research yesterday I was under the impression that the only use of this tree is to provide floss for stuffing. That was wrong. The oil from the seeds of kapok tree is used for cooking as well as soap making.
But it seems that the root and bark have several medicinal properties. According to some papers they are useful in managing constipation, urinary retention, tumors, seminal weakness, flatulence, colic, and type II diabetes. It is an aphrodisiac as well.
I was ignorant of the true value of the kapok tree. But not the people of Puerto Rico. It is their national tree.
(A request: Will knowledgeable visitors to the site add and/or correct what is said here? Thank you.)
The drawing on top is from Wikimedia Creative Commons. It is in the public domain. The photos below (copyright reserved) are from Olavipe. Click on them to enlarge.
Also see:Ixora coccinea (Rubiaceae) - flowers that gods and men love