Daily Flower Candy: Ceiba speciosa

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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.

The flowers of Ceiba speciosa seem to vary from bright pink to white
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.
The spiny surface of a young floss silk tree
The craggy surface of a mature floss silk tree
 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. 

This tree, in Palermo’s Orto Botanico, carried gorgeous white flowers flushed with yellow and pink
 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.)

Floss silk fibre (photograph Wikipedia)

 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.

An avenue of Ceiba speciosa at the Orto Botanico

Categories: Beautiful Strangers, Flowers, Photography, Plants, Travel, Trees and Shrubs

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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19 comments On "Daily Flower Candy: Ceiba speciosa"

  1. Flowers in the winter here in New Zealand. Looks like a camellia from a distant. Thanks for advising its new name. Cheers

  2. With such beautiful flowers would one be surprised that this tree has such a vicious bark? To protect them of course from monkeys and yes, from people as well;).

    1. We went to Madagascar a few years ago and everything seemed to be covered in vicious thorns – the lemurs seemed quite oblivious to them! I touched the bark with my palm and the thorns were pretty sharp, so I would steer well clear in future.

  3. It’s an amazing tree – I remember being blown away by a mature specimen in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney (which, being right on the water is virtually frost free). The bark is extraordinary, but when in flower it is something else to behold

    1. When I was researching Ceiba on the the internet I found some incredible pictures of trees in bloom in Argentina and Brazil. It’s quite a stunner. Here in Sicily they seem to vary between quite stubby, scrubby specimens in central reservations and magnificent mature trees with great weeping branches. Clearly a very adaptable plant!

  4. Found your info when looking up this fabulous tree to slow a friend following a wonderful trip to Sicily. Amazing to see it in bloom in November!

  5. How funny! I am editing some images from a trip to Spain and had no idea what the tree I was looking at was. So, I googled ‘spiny bark tree’ and the first matching image to come up took me to your page. I then realised that you are a pal of lovely Beth in Gunwalloe… she was talking about you last week… I am going to do her house for CL mag! small world indeed…

    1. Hi Mark. Beth was telling me about your shoot. I was down on Saturday so got to enjoy the flowers and herbs ….. I was even allowed some cake! So pleased you found my blog. Am hoping to do a little plug for Chyanvounder here if we are permitted to use any of your images at some point 😀 Dan

  6. Thanks for your great description and photos. We are living in Punta del Este in Uruguay and I was puzzled by these beautiful pink flowering trees that looked like the star magnolia, but had the very noticeable spiny bark. The trees are all in bloom now and look magnificent.

  7. Just returned from holiday in Palermo – these trees were in full bloom and a magnificent sight to behold. You can see them in the Orto Botanico (small admission charge) but also in the lovely gardens next door Villa Giulia (free admission).

    There are several also around the Piazza Indipendenza and some younger ones in the gardens behind the Cattedrale di Monreale where there are stunning views over Palermo.

  8. Fantastic photos – thank you. There are several of these trees(with either pink or creamy flowers) in the garden of the amazing modern Basilica Sanctuario Madonna Delle Lacrime in Siracusa, & your blog popped up when I googled “tree bottle trunk spines”. Are you happy that I download some of your photos? They are much superior to mine!

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