Giant Beautiful Kapok

By Jack Ewing

The most noteworthy old tree that has passed on at Hacienda Barú was an enormous old kapok or ceibo tree (Ceiba pentandra). It once dominated the skies near what is today the El Ceibo Service Station. Its familiar form, tall straight trunk and umbrella top, was a well-known landmark for travelers and also for fishermen who could see it as far as two kilometers from shore. Only God knows how old it was when it crashed to earth on August 11, 1989.

The kapok is truly amazing in many ways. One tree planted in 2013 measured 6 meters tall at only 4 years, and another soared to 30 meters in height and 2.4 meters in circumference at 12 years. After reaching about 70 meters the kapok tree stop climbing, increase in girth, and thicken, expanding their enormous buttress roots. They are the most massive trees in our rainforests. In years past, the long, cylindrical ceibo trunks were sought after to make bongos that once sailed the seas from Costa Ballena to the markets of Puntarenas bringing much needed trade to the region. A silky cotton like material known as kapok bursts forth from the pods, floats on the breeze and carries the ceibo seeds tangled within its fibers, once used for stuffing mattresses and pillows, and its buoyancy made it especially useful as a filler for life jackets.

Entire ecosystems are found in the massive crowns of kapok trees. Branches larger than the trunks of most trees provide support for bromeliads, which shelter untold numbers of insects, small amphibians, and reptiles. The flowers of one tree produce up to two gallons daily of nectar that is fed upon by bats. And many species take shelter in the hollow cores of the boles. Is it any wonder that the ceibo trees were revered by the Mayas? It was believed that the enormous crown high above the rainforest canopy, the tall straight trunk, and the massive buttress roots served as a connection between heaven and earth. Who knows? Maybe they do.

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