Bongo Fury solved with Bombacoid name

The bongo is a hip drum with a sound that's immediately recognised and never forgotten (and is probably thumping through your head right now). Bongo is also one of the common names for a distinctive tree from tropical Central America that took me days, and external help, to identify.

The plant bongo is a tree that stops you in your tracks. It's large yet almost cute with its tucked in base making the trunk look like an upside down carrot. Then there are the distinctive lines around that trunk, dividing it into giant segments.

Up at the top, perhaps 30 metres above, there may be no leaves (as when I saw it, in spring) and sometimes giant pom poms of flowers that look like this close up.

This is Cavanillesia platanifolia, a native of Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru, but a popular feature tree in Cuban botanic gardens, where I saw and photographed it.

I saw it first in the 600 hectare (reputedly the third largest botanic garden in the world) Jardín Botánico Nacional, just out of Havana. It's growing near a glasshouse, framing the first image, and in April this year it was in full flower.

A few days later, at the smaller but still hefty (97 hectare) Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos the tree at the top of the post was devoid of leaves and flowers. Here are two more images of that tree, splitting it in two.

The Bongo - also called Cuipo, Hameli and various other Spanish derived names - is in the recently expanded Malvaceae family. It's still grouped with ex-members of the family Bombaceae, such as boabs and the Silk Floss Tree, in a subfamily called Bombacoideae.

The tree is relatively common and widespread in lowland rainforest, although sometimes found as a solitary individual or a small group. Apparently it is one of trees left by foresters because of its bulk, which makes it difficult to handle. Locally though, the light, succulent wood, similar to balsa wood (from Ochroma, another genus in this subfamily), is used to make canoes and rafts.

The trunk is always straight and rarely branched lower down, with that swelling at the base and the bark very smooth apart from those rings (and I'm not sure if the rings represent some kind of seasonal growth spurt or not but like many tropical trees there aren't easily read, radial growth-rings inside the trunk). As with other members of this subfamily the crown is often mushroom-like, even flattened at the base and rounded at the top in a 'perfect' specimen. Not so much in my two.

The leaves, I didn't see, but they are apparently squarish and hand-shaped when young, becoming circular in adult branches. They are dropped in late spring, just before the start of the dry season, and should have reappeared soon after I left Cuba. The 5-winged fruits would also have become conspicuous after my departure, at least on the tree in the Jardín Botánico Nacional.

In its native rainforest this tree is an opportunist, taking advantage of forest openings to establish quickly with a fast-growing, hardly branched trunk that only spreads when it reaches the forest canopy. In Cuban botanic gardens, 12-year old trees can reach over 8 metres and 56-year trees can reach 30 metres of more.

So a distinctive tree, but without leaves and with flowers blooming 20 or more metres above me, I didn't have a clue. My thanks to Neville Walsh for calming my Bongo Fury (the name of an Beefheart-Zappa album I used to own) by tracking down its name in a few minutes after I had spent an evening or two sorting through hundreds of (unmatching) Malvaceae, Sterculiaceae and Bombacaeae options. I'm glad.

Oh, and there appear to be another four species of Cavanillesia, but who has time to sort through them.