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What Is Bombax?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 14 March 2014
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Bombax is a genus of trees in the mallow family, Malvaceae, which also includes okra and hibiscus. Trees in the Bombax genus are native to parts of South, East, and Southeast Asia, western Africa, and Northern Australia. The exact number of species is disputed, but there are at least three. Common names for plants in this genus include red cotton tree and silk cotton tree.

The common names of Bombax trees refer to the cotton-like fibers inside the fruits, which are sometimes used as a substitute for cotton. The fibers are very short, however, making Bombax impractical for use in textiles. These fibers are used mainly as stuffing, such as for pillows or mattresses. Some Bombax species are also used as a source of food or traditional remedies. The timber is also used on occasion, but it is very light and soft, so its applications are rather limited.

Trees belonging to Bombax are very large, reaching 200 feet (60 meters) in some cases. The trees are deciduous, losing their leaves in late fall or winter. Their red flowers bloom in late winter to early spring, before the leaves have grown back. Many species feature a trunk covered with spikes to prevent animals from harming the plant.

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B. ceiba is the most widely grown and most well known member of the genus. It is native to northern Australia and parts of Asia, but is cultivated throughout tropical and subtropical regions of the world for its attractive flowers. The B. ceiba flower is used as a symbol of the Chinese city of Guangzhou and the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. The flowers are traditionally seen as a sign of warm weather to come in Taiwan.

B. buonopozense is a species native to the rain forests of western Africa. Its common names include Gold Coast Bombax and red-flowered silk cotton tree. It is similar in appearance to B. ceiba, though the trees are generally not as tall.

Nearly every part of B. buonopozense has a traditional use in its native environment. The timber can be used to make light watercraft, the flowers and fruit are used as food, and the leaves are traditionally fed to livestock. The spikes growing on the trunk can be burned and mixed with butter to produce a traditional remedy for swelling. The smoke of the burning bark is believed to drive away evil spirits, and the dried sap can be burned as incense.

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