Friday, 24 September 2010
Flossy silk pillows*
My wife Lynda bought a kapok pillow recently, persuaded by the claims of comfort, health and sustainability in production. The kapok is a rain forest tree from Tropical America, and the pillow is stuffed with fluff from its fruits.
Botanically the tree is called Ceiba pentandra. Ceiba is also the name now given to the Floss Silk Tree, a distinctive tree in the botanic gardens. It has a spiny trunk, pink flowers and then fruits that open up to release…fluff.
The Floss Silk Tree used to be called Chorisia speciosa but recent taxonomic research has meant it’s been combined into the now expanded genus Ceiba. So we now call it Ceiba speciosa. Or you can still use Floss Silk Tree. (Confusingly there is an Australian tropical tree called the Kapok or Cotton Tree – Cochlospermum fraseri – which also produces fruit fluff, but is unrelated to the Floss Silk Tree.)
Ceiba is in the plant family Malvaceae, which also includes the baobab or boab trees of Africa and the Kimberly (as well as hibiscus). The flowers of many species are bat pollinated, probably by smaller bats than the flying foxes roosting in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The fluff-producing fruits are characteristic of Ceiba. The seeds are embedded, but not attached, to the fluff which spreads through the forest, or botanic garden. Each fluff fibre is a few centremetres long and covered in wax, making them water repellent and presumably good pillow stuffing material.
In the middle of the last century, life jackets and car seats were almost always stuffed with kapok fluff. Nowadays other materials are used and there is little commercial harvesting of kapok, but a small niche market exists.
The advertising spiel says a kapok pillow is resistant to mites, mould and mildew. The fluff, it is said, will never absorb any moisture.
Apparently the fruits are harvested sustainably. The kapok has always has a special significance in its native habitat. The Maya of Central America held that a giant Ceiba tree stood at the centre of the earth, connecting our world to the spirit-world above - very 'Avatar'... Even today, the kapok is often left when other trees around it were felled.
We don’t have the kapok growing the Botanic Gardens, but we do have at least two species of Ceiba, including of course the grand Floss Silk Tree. You can see a couple of the Floss Silks at the western edge of the Palm Grove – the biggest is just over 50 years old.
Image: Fluffy seed pods on a Floss Silk Tree in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
*This Passion for Plants posting will also appear on the ABC Sydney website (under 'Weekends' or search 'gardening'), and is the gist of my 702AM radio interview with Simon Marnie on Saturday morning, between 9-10 am.