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The Kapok Tree and Haiku

Ceiba pentandra

The kapok tree (sumaumeira) occurs in the Americas, Africa and Asia. It was in Asia that haiku originated and spread to the rest of the world. The kapok has spread similarly, although from the Americas. For our group, it represents the force of haiku in our region and its fruits, liberating their fluffy silky fiber-entrapped seeds, symbolize the haiku itself. Like its seeds, which are used to fill pillows and mattresses, our work also is used to illustrate our creation for posterity. The kapok tree enchants with its legends, its spirit invoked by indian chiefs in rituals of cure. It is considered the telephone of the forest: beating its buttresses causes them to echo, announcing the presence of somebody at its trunk. From this attractive and spiritual relation we make a clear connection with the foundation and objectives for our haiku group.

Common Names:

French Africa: Le Formager, Le Faux-Cotonnier, Le Kapokier
Bolivia: Toborachio
Brazil: Sumaúma, Sumaúma da várzea, Sumaumeira-de-macaco, Samaúma (Amazonas).
Colombia: Ceiba, Ceiba de lana, Ceiba de garsón, Ceiba, Ceiba de bruja, Cibonga, Cartagenera, Palosanto, Lana bongo, Yague, Fromager, Majumba, Ceibo
Commercial Spanish: Ceiba, Ceibo
Cuba, Peru: Ceibo, Ceyba
French Guiana: Fromager, Maho coton, Kapokier, Bois coton
Great-Britain: Corkwood, Kapok-tree, Silk-cotton-tree
Guiana: Kumaka, Silk cotton
Haiti (Guadalupe): Mapou
Java: Kapok
Mexico: Ceibo, Ceyba, Pochote, Ochota
Nicaragua: Ceibon
Oeste Africano: Silk-cotton-tree
Panama: Longo, Cotton-tree
Suriname: Kankantri
Venezuela: Ceiba yuca

General features of the kapok

The kapok tree is typical of the floodplains, where it reaches gigantic proportions, such as 45-50 m in height and 1.5-2 m in diameter, growing very fast and developing characteristic buttresses. In the uplands, they are smaller though still very tall and voluminous. When young, the branches and trunk are often armed with thick, conical, solitary, stubby spines. The alternately arranged leaves are 5-7-lobed palmate, with saw-toothed edges. Due to its great demand for light, the natural regeneration of the plant is not abundant, even though it sheads a great number of seeds. The natural reproduction of the species is more successful in abandoned agricultural lands.

The solitary or grouped flowers are pale rose, with purple spots, externally covered by white hair, internally with less hair, linked at the base of the staminal tube. The fruit is a woody obovate or ellipsoidal capsule, 5 to 7 cm in diameter and 8 to 16 cm long, containing 120 to 175 seeds, each surrounded by white or grayish, fluffy, silky fibrous cotton, which is very light and elastic, and constitutes the "kapok".

The phenology of the kapok varies geographically and according to climate. In most of Amazonia, the kapok tree flowers from August to September, when the tree is almost totally without foliage (because it is bat-pollinated) and the fruits ripen from October to November. In the experimental station at Curua-Una, Pará, flowering occurs from June to August and fruiting is in September and October.

Area of occurrence

The kapok tree is widely distributed in the world. It occurs in Tropical America, Western Africa and Southeastern Asia, coinciding with the areas of significant humid tropical forests. The species is strictly tropical and originally from Tropical America. In Amazonia, it is more common along the white water floodplains and adjacent uplands of the Solimões, Madeira, Purus and Juruá River basins, less common along the clear and black water floodplains and adjacent uplands of the Tapajós, Xingu, Tocantins and Negro River basins.


It is a species of open forests and is abundant in tropical swamp forests and along the margins of sediment-rich rivers, and in swiddens on the floodplains of the same rivers. It also grows in uplands with fertile clayey soils.


The wood is the main use of the kapok today. It is a light wood (0.30 to 0.37 g/cm3), white colored when fresh, changing to brown and gray as it becomes cured, and has a regular grain. It has an average texture and indistinct smell and taste. It is used to make boxes, toys, packing boxes, rafts, cellulose, tooth-picks, matches and canoes. In Amazonia, it is an important filler for plywood.

Its most important secondary use is the exploitation of the wool that surrounds the seeds, known as "kapok", which is used as stuffing for mattresses, pillows and lifesavers (for being impermeable to humidity). Two hundred fruits supply about 1 kg of kapok. The fruits also serve as food for animals.

The seed is composed of 40% shell (exocarp) and 60% of kernel (endosperm) that contains 25% oil. The oil has a yellow green color, pleasant taste and smell, similar to cotton oil, even in its chemical constants. When in repose the oil separates solid fats such as stearin, also like cotton oil. It's used in foods, soaps, lubricants, illumination and as an efficient stain cleaner. The seed cake contains 26% protein, 7% oil, 23% carbohydrates, 6% ashes and 14% water, and can be used as food for cattle or as manure.

Another secondary use of the kapok is medicinal. Its sap is used to cure conjunctivitis. The bark water extract is diuretic and is used to cure hidropsy of the abdomen and malaria. Some chemical components obtained from the bark of the roots show moderate activity against two types of bacteria, Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus, and two fungi, Aspergillus niger and Candida albicans . The exposed roots on the margins of dry streams offer excellent drinking water during the summer.

This text was compiled from:

  • Arthur A. Loureiro, Marlene F. da Silva, Jurandyr da Cruz Alencar. 1979. Essências Madeireiras da Amazônia. Volume II. Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, Manaus, Amazonas, Brasil.

  • Paulo de Tarso Barbosa Sampaio. 1999. Sumaúma, Ceiba pentandra. In: Jason W. Clay, Paulo de Tarso Barbosa Sampaio, Charles R. Clement (Eds.). Biodiversidade Amazônica. Exemplos e estratégias de utilização. Serviço Brasileiro de Apoio à Pequena e Média Empresa-SEBRAE, Manaus, Amazonas, Brasil.

  • Revised by Charles R. Clement, Biólogo e Pesquisador do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia - INPA.