Monday, March 23, 2009

Medicines in a tree

If you are in India during summer and see soft, woolly white material floating in the air, don’t wonder whether it is mist beginning to form. In all likelihood there would be a white silk-cotton tree nearby.

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


trueblue said...

Dear Mr.Tharakan, Thanks for the post. Incidentally , yesterday I came across this website ( They use kapok in their products and praises it for its hypo-allergenic qualities.
- Aswathy

Sunita said...

Great post! I remember all the pillows at home used to be filled with the cotton from this tree. It really is a nuisance when the pods burst and the fiber starts floating all over the place, dusting people and landscape with a coating of white cotton.
I had no idea that it had medicinal qualities too.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you for providing the link, Aswathy. Shall look it up.

In my research I did come across the information that in a hallucinogenic drink called Ayahuasca parts of kapok is used.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Sunita, I'm glad you liked the post. I too didn't know that kapok tree has medicinal properties.

Inji Pennu said...

I went through your blog and especially about Syrian Catholic history tidbits and about the beautiful architecture of old ancestral homes. I am so delighted that people like yourself are blogging these days so that younger generation like us, who have lost a lot of our tradition and knowledge can at least peek a glance to the old World. I am so happy. Haven't gone through the entire blog, but you got me hooked. Since you are of my grandfathers age, I don't know how to address you since in the blog world, everybody goes by their first name?

thankyou once again.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Inji Pennu, it is comments like these which make blogging worthwhile. Thank you so much.

My two daughters (both are editors) have been telling me, like you have done now, that I should record my memories, write about the days that have gone by. Now that I know how much it is appreciated, shall try to post more such stories.

Forget about my age, which is 75+, call me Abraham.

Do keep on visiting the site.

Ashvin said...

Dear Injipennu, (what a nice name - ginger girl), I know how you feel, I just can't call anyone older than me by name, early upbringing has got a lot to do with it I guess. Call him Mr. Tharakan like I do.

Chandramouli S said...

You, of course, are right about it's Botanical name, Mr Thakaran. It's called KuTazAlmali in Sanskrit.
In fact, its thorns are used in Yama's abode to torment the wicked ones.