Ceiba is a plant genus that is part of the Malvaceae family. It contains about ten species of tropical trees that are native to Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa. These trees are extremely tall and usually rise above the general forest canopy. The fibers which surround the seeds have been used in manufacturing, while the trunks have been adapted for use as canoes. Their biggest threat comes from deforestation.
The name of this genus is derived from the Taino word Tsayee-baa. The Taino were the native inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. The trees in this genus are also referred to as "silk cotton trees." Ceiba pentandra is commonly called "kapok," and Ceiba speciosa is known as the "silk floss tree."
Most of the trees categorized as Ceiba grow in tropical regions. Ceiba rosea is distributed throughout Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, while Ceiba speciosa is native to Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. Ceiba trichistandra is found in the drier regions of Ecuador and Peru.
Ceiba trees are among the tallest in the Amazon rain forest. They can reach a height of 200 feet (roughly 60 m), and the trunk can be as wide as 10 feet (3 m). The trunk is usually protected by thick spikes. Another unusual feature is that the trunk and branches are a shade of green. The color is due to the presence of photosynthetic pigments in the bark.
The flowers open during the nighttime and are pollinated by bats and pollen. Usually, the trees flower every five years and only when the tree is leafless. This generally occurs during the dry season.
Fruits and seeds from the tree contain lightweight fibers that are water-repellent. The seeds are carried by wind, and the fruits can float on water. This may explain how species that are found in South America are in the same genus as species in Africa.
The fiber derived from the kapok tree was historically used in life preservers, since it is buoyant and resistant to water. Upholstered car seats have also been stuffed with these fibers. As modern materials became the standard, however, fibers from the kapok tree were no longer in demand.
Wood from the kapok tree is still highly desirable. Although not suitable for furniture, the soft and light wood is ideal as pulpwood and plywood. Some countries cut down the trees and use the wood to produce pallets.