Ceiba speciosa (formerly Chorisia speciosa): False kapok, floss silk tree, drunken stick, bottle tree
We are in Sicily, Palermo to be precise, enjoying the balmy autumn weather, wonderful food, exquisite wine and eclectic architecture. So far the urban flora has been predictably Mediterranean – oleanders, palms, bougainvillea, lantana and cycads – but one tree has taken me completely by surprise. We first encountered Ceiba speciosa growing in a small coutyard below the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita (which, by the way, is one of the most jawdroppingly beautiful works of art I have ever seen) and naturally I had to find out more.
Commonly known as false kapok (the two trees are closely related) the floss silk tree has an extraordinary, elongated, gourd-shaped trunk which remains emerald green and able to photosynthesise until the tree is quite mature. The surface of the trunk and branches is covered by a brutal armour of broad thorns which makes it rather an antisocial beast. Yet here in Sicily and its native South America the floss silk tree is often planted at the side of the street. I suppose it deters malingerers fairly effectively. With age the ‘bark’ turns grey-brown and looks rather like the skin of something evil from Lord of the Rings.
However, for all the ugly agressiveness of its limbs, the flowers of the floss silk tree are elegant and exotic. They have a lily-like quality, although no scent, with five prettily marked petals centred around a very prominent style and stigma. I am not aware that there are different garden cultivars of floss silk tree, but around Palermo we’ve spotted specimens with white, pale pink and fuchsia coloured flowers. From a distance the shape of the tree with its canopy covered in pink flowers, suggests it could be a magnolia, although the flowers typically appear in late summer and autumn.
Following the flowers come little green fruits the shape and size of an olive. These mature and eventually burst open to reveal fingers of a soft, fluffy fibre. This is inferior in quality to kapok but nevertheless used as a filling material for pillows in South America. (My photographs of the fibres were poor, so please forgive me from using one from Wikipedia to illustrate this point.)
The floss silk tree is widely cultivated in warmer climes and is particularly drought tolerant. Apparently it is also reasonably cold tolerant, surviving short spells below freezing. Along with other species of Ceiba the floss silk tree is known as Palo Borracho in Spain, which means “drunken stick”. This is because older trees sometimes have awkward branches that jut out at peculiar angles as you can see in the photograph below, taken in Palermo’s Botanical Gardens (about which more soon).
Drunken or not, and I often am so can sypathise, Ceiba speciosa is a fabulous, fascinating tree. I feel good for getting to know the floss silk tree better, just like the fine bottle of Sicilian red that’s waiting for me at dinner this evening.