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Ceiba pentandra - (L.) Gaertn.

Common Name Kapok Tree, Cotton Tree, Suma'ma
Family Malvaceae
USDA hardiness 10-12
Known Hazards The seeds, and the oil, contain cyclopropenoid fatty acids such as malvalic acid (7 - 8%) and sterculic acid (3%), which cause abnormal physiological reactions in animals. Therefore the consumption of kapok seeds or seed oil should be discouraged unless the cyclopropenoid acids have been chemically removed[ 299 ]. Kapok fibre is irritating to the eyes, nose and throat, and workers exposed to kapok dust for long periods may develop chronic bronchitis[ 299 ]. (Plant has spines or sharp edges; use extreme caution when handling )
Habitats An emergent tree in various types of moist evergreen and deciduous forests, including those subject to seasonal inundation, as well as in dry forests and gallery forests[ 303 ]. As a pioneer species, it mostly occurs in secondary forests[ 303 ].
Range S. America - Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, the Guyanas; north through C. America to Mexico; Caribbean; West tropical Africa.
Edibility Rating    (3 of 5)
Other Uses    (5 of 5)
Weed Potential No
Medicinal Rating    (3 of 5)
Care (info)
Tender Well drained soil Moist Soil Full sun
Ceiba pentandra Kapok Tree, Cotton Tree, Suma

Hannes Grobe
Ceiba pentandra Kapok Tree, Cotton Tree, Suma
Ruddy BENEZET wikimedia.org


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A tropical tree native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, northern South America, and to tropical west Africa, Kapok Tree or Ceiba pentandra is now a widely cultivated in Southeast Asia for its seed fibre. It is fast growing and reaches up to 70 m in height and 3 m in trunk diameter. The trunk is buttressed and large simple thorns, similar to that of on many of the larger branches, are found on it. The crown is thin and pagoda shaped. The leaves are palmate, with 5 to 9 leaflets each. Kapok produces several pods that contain seeds covered by fibre. Kapok fibre is yellowish in colour, light, very buoyant, water resistant, resilient, but very flammable. It is used as stuffing in mattresses, pillows, etc. The seed of kapok yields oil that is used in making soap and as fertilizer. The seed is edible either raw or cooked (roasted and ground into powder). Tender leaves, buds, and fruits are eaten like Abelmoschus moschatus or okra. The flowers are blanched and eaten with chilli sauce; dried stamens are added to curries and soups. Bark decoction, on the other hand, is used as a diuretic, aphrodisiac, and as treatment for headache and diabetes. Kapok, in general, is used medicinally for fever, spasms, and bleeding. Different plant parts have a wide range of medicinal functions as well.

Physical Characteristics

 icon of manicon of lolypop
Ceiba pentandra is a deciduous Tree growing to 50 m (164ft) by 30 m (98ft) at a fast rate.
See above for USDA hardiness. It is hardy to UK zone 10 and is frost tender. The flowers are pollinated by Bats, Moths, Bees. The plant is not self-fertile.
It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Suitable for: medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. Suitable pH: mildly acid, neutral and basic (mildly alkaline) soils and can grow in very acid, very alkaline and saline soils.
It cannot grow in the shade. It prefers dry or moist soil. The plant is not wind tolerant.

UK Hardiness Map US Hardiness Map


Bombax guineensis Schum. & Thonn. Bombax orientale Spreng. Bombax pentandrum L. Ceiba guineensis (Th

Plant Habitats

Edible Uses

Edible Parts: Flowers  Fruit  Leaves  Oil  Seed
Edible Uses: Drink  Oil  Salt

Edible portion: Seeds, Leaves, Calyces, Flowers, Vegetable, Fruit. Tender leaves, buds and fruit are mucilaginous and are eaten like okra (Abelmoschus moschatus)[ 301 ]. Seed - raw or cooked. Roasted and ground into a powder, it is eaten in soups and used as a flavouring[ 301 ]. The seed can be sprouted and eaten raw or cooked in soups etc[ 301 ]. One report says that the seed is toxic[ 238 ]. A pleasant tasting cooking oil is extracted from the seed[ 301 , 418 ]. Although the seed is toxic, the oil is edible[ 238 ]. The oil has a yellow colour and a pleasant, mild odour and taste resembling cottonseed oil. It becomes rancid quickly when exposed to air. Flowers - blanched and eaten with chilli sauce[ 301 ]. The dried stamens are added to curries and hot, sour soup for colouring[ 301 ]. The wood ashes are used as a salt substitute[ 299 , 301 ]. The resin from the trunk is put in water and drunk.

References   More on Edible Uses

Medicinal Uses

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Abortifacient  Alterative  Antiasthmatic  Antidiarrhoeal  Antirheumatic  Antitussive  Astringent  Contraceptive  
Diuretic  Dysentery  Emollient  Febrifuge  Hypotensive  Laxative  Leprosy  
Mouthwash  Ophthalmic  Oxytoxic  Sedative  Skin

Kapok is an astringent, diuretic herb that lowers fevers, relaxes spasms and controls bleeding[ 238 ]. The leaves contain several active compounds including derivatives of quercetin and kaempferol, tannins and caffeic acid[ 348 ]. The leaves are abortifacient, alterative, emollient, laxative and sedative[ 299 ]. They are used in the treatment of scabies, diarrhoea, coughs, hoarse throats, fatigue and lumbago[ 238 , 299 , 303 ]. A decoction of the tender shoots is used as a contraceptive[ 303 ]. Young leaves are warmed and mixed with palm oil to be eaten as a remedy for heart problems.[ 299 ]. The leaf sap is drunk as a remedy for mental illness[ 299 ]. The juice from bruised young branches is used in a preparation to treat asthma[ 238 ]. Applied externally, the pounded leaves are used as a dressing on sores, sprains, tumours, abscesses, whitlows etc[ 238 , 299 , 303 ]. The leaf sap is applied on skin infections[ 299 ]. Leaf macerations are used in baths as a treatment against general fatigue, fevers, stiffness of the limbs, headache and bleeding of pregnant women[ 238 , 299 ]. They are used as an eye-bath to treat conjunctivitis, remove foreign bodies from the eye and help heal wounds in the eye[ 299 ]. The leaves can be picked at any time during the growing season and are used either fresh or dried[ 238 ]. The bark and the leaves are used in the treatment of bronchial congestion[ 238 ]. Externally, they are used in baths to treat fevers and headaches[ 238 ]. The root and stem barks are credited with emetic and antispasmodic properties[ 299 ]. A decoction of the stem bark is taken to treat stomach problems, diarrhoea, hernia, gonorrhoea, heart trouble, oedema, fever, asthma and rickets[ 299 ]. Macerations of the bark are said to be a cure for heart trouble and hypertension, and are credited with stimulant and anthelmintic properties[ 299 ]. Stem bark decoctions are used in mouth washes for treating toothache and mouth problems, they are also applied on swollen fingers, wounds, sores, furuncles and leprous macules[ 299 ]. The bark, often as a powder, is used as a treatment on wounds[ 238 , 299 , 739 ]. A decoction of the bark is used as a wash to treat fevers[ 348 ]. The bark is usually harvested in the dry season[ 238 ]. The gum is abortifacient and astringent. It is eaten to relieve stomach upset[ 303 ]. It is also taken internally to control abnormal uterine bleeding, dysentery and diarrhoea in children[ 238 , 299 ]. The gum is harvested from incisions made into the trunk of young trees, made as the sap is rising at the end of the dry season[ 238 ]. A decoction of the boiled roots is used to treat oedema, diarrhoea, dysentery, dysmenorrhoea and hypertension[ 299 , 303 ]. The decoction is also said to be oxytocic[ 299 ]. The root forms part of preparations that are used to treat leprosy[ 299 ]. The flowers are emollient. They are used as a remedy for constipation[ 299 ] The fruit is emollient. The powdered fruit is taken with water as a remedy for intestinal parasites and stomach-ache[ 299 ]. The seed floss is used for cleaning wounds[ 299 ]. The seed oil is rubbed in to affected areas to relieve rheumatism, and is also applied to heal wounds[ 299 ].

References   More on Medicinal Uses

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Other Uses

Bedding  Containers  Dye  Fibre  Furniture  Insulation  Oil  Paper  Pioneer  Plant support  Potash  Soap making  Soil stabilization  Stuffing  Wood

Other uses rating: Very High (5/5). Seaside tree, Public open spaces, Xerophytic. Agroforestry Uses: A large, fast-growing pioneer species, it cannot germinate in the dense forest, requiring light in order to thrive. It can be used in reforestation projects for native woodland, but is probably too large and long-lived for woodland gardens[ K ]. The tree is an important source of honey and is also suitable for soil erosion control and watershed protection[ 381 ]. In agroforestry, it has been grown to supply shade for coffee and cacao, whilst in Java it is used as a support for pepper plants (Piper spp.)[ 381 ]. Other Uses The fibre from the inner wall of the fruit is unique in that it combines springiness and resilience and is resistant to vermin, to make it ideal for stuffing pillows, mattresses and cushions; it is indispensable in hospitals, since mattresses can be dry sterilized without losing their original quality[ 303 ]. It is light (one eighth the weight of cotton[ 238 ]), water repellent and buoyant, making it ideal for life jackets, lifeboats and other naval safety apparatus[ 303 ]. It is an excellent thermal insulator, being used in iceboxes, refrigerators, cold-storage plants, offices, theatres and aeroplanes[ 303 , 320 ]. It is also a very good sound absorber and is widely used for acoustic insulation[ 303 , 320 ]. The seed contains 20-25% non-drying oil, similar to cottonseed oil[ 303 ]. It is used as a lubricant, illuminant, in soap manufacturing and in cooking[ 46 , 303 ]. The main fatty acids are palmitic acid (10 - 16%), stearic acid (2 - 9%), oleic acid (49 - 53%) and linoleic acid (26 - 29%)[ 299 ]. The ash of the wood is rich in potash and can be used in making soap[ 299 ]. The bark is used for making hut walls and doors[ 299 ]. A gum and a reddish brown dye are obtained from the bark[ 299 ]. The heartwood is variable in colour, from creamy white to light brown, often with greyish veins, but sap-staining fungi may darken it; it is not clearly demarcated from the sapwood. The grain is interlocked, sometimes irregular; the texture coarse; growth rings are prominent; the silica content is low. The wood is soft, weak and very light in weight; it is extremely vulnerable to decay when in contact with the soil and is also susceptible to termites. Both logs and lumber are very susceptible to insect and fungal attack, but preservation treatment is easy. The wood seasons normally, with only a slight risk of checking or distortion; once dry it is poorly to moderately stable in service. It machines easily but not satisfactorily, leaving surfaces fuzzy - tools should be kept very sharp; nailing and screwing are poor; gluing is correct. The wood is easy to peel for veneer. A low quality timber, the reported uses of the wood include for plywood, packaging, lumber core stock, light construction, boxes and crates, cheap furniture, matches, pulp and paper products. Traditionally, it is used for canoes, rafts and farm implements[ 299 , 303 , 418 , 848 ]. Although it has been recorded to be used for fuel, it is not considered very suitable for this purpose because it only smoulders[ 299 ].

Special Uses

Carbon Farming  Coppice  Food Forest

References   More on Other Uses

Cultivation details

Industrial Crop: Fiber  Industrial Crop: Oil  Management: Standard  Minor Global Crop

A plant of the moist tropics, where it is found at elevations up to 1,200 metres, though productivity starts to decline above 460 metres[ 793 ]. It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range 17° - 38°c, but can tolerate 12° - 40°c[ 418 ]. It can be killed by temperatures of -1c or lower[ 418 ]. Fruiting can fail if the night temperature falls much below 20°c[ 320 ]. It prefers a mean annual rainfall in the range 1,500 - 2,500mm, but tolerates 750 - 5,700mm[ 418 ], 793. It can tolerate a dry season from 0 - 6 months long[ 793 ]. It is believed that the tree originated in Central America, but it can now be found pantropically between 16 degrees north and 16 degrees south[ 303 ]. Kapok is the tallest native tree growing in Africa[ 200 ]. Prefers a sunny position in a fertile, deep, moisture-retentive but well-drained loamy soil[ 200 , 238 ]. Prefers a pH in the range 5.5 - 6.5, tolerating 5 - 7.5[ 418 ]. Prefers a position sheltered from strong winds[ 238 ]. A fast-growing tree, the annual increases in height and diameter during the first 10 years are about 120cm and 3 - 4cm respectively[ 299 ]. In forest gaps, height growth is maybe 2 metres per year[ 299 ]. The tree can begin to bear seeds, and therefore fibre, from the age of 4 - 5 years, with yields increasing up to about 8 years[ 418 ]. The economical life of the plants is about 60 years[ 418 ]. Leafing and flowering periods are more regular in drier parts of the distribution area; in moister areas, leafing and flowering periods are highly irregular[ 299 ]. The flowers open at night and are senescent by midday. They emit a powerful odour and secrete nectar at the base of the large, bisexual flowers[ 299 , 303 ]. The fruits ripen 80 - 100 days after flowering, the dehiscent types releasing kapok with loosely embedded seeds that are wind-dispersed[ 299 ]. A single tree can bear 300 - 400 pods a year, yielding up to 20 kilos of fibre from about the age of 5 for over 50 years[ 238 ]. The tree responds well to coppicing[ 793 ]. The trees have vigorous rooting systems and are known to cause damage to buildings and roads if planted too close[ 793 ]. Cultivated kapok is believed to be a natural hybrid between two varieties respectively native of tropical America and West Africa[ 418 ]. The light seeds are widely disseminated and find ideal conditions for germination in abandoned agricultural land[ 303 ].

Carbon Farming

  • Industrial Crop: Fiber  Clothing, rugs, sheets, blankets etc. Currently, almost none of our fiber are produced from perennial crops but could be!
  • Industrial Crop: Oil  Materials, chemicals and energy include bioplastics, biomass, glycerin, soaps, lubricants, paints, biodiesel. Oilseed crop types.
  • Management: Standard  Plants grow to their standard height. Harvest fruit, seeds, or other products. Non-Destructive management systems.
  • Minor Global Crop  These crops are already grown or traded around the world, but on a smaller scale than the global perennial staple and industrial crops, The annual value of a minor global crop is under $1 billion US. Examples include shea, carob, Brazil nuts and fibers such as ramie and sisal.

References   Carbon Farming Information and Carbon Sequestration Information

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Plant Propagation

Seed - sow as soon as ripe[ 238 ]. Without any pre-treatment seeds germinate slowly (less than 10% one month after sowing) and germination may continue for 3 - 4 months[ 299 ]. In the wild, a bush fire may cause simultaneous germination of the seeds[ 299 ]. Seedling growth is relatively fast, they can be 29cm tall after 6 weeks and 63cm after 51 weeks[ 299 ]. Cuttings of half-ripe wood[ 238 ]. Cuttings of long stems, 1.2 - 2 metres long are used commercially in the tropics[ 238 ]. These are placed directly into the open ground[ 238 ]. Comments from a website user trying seed treatments for Ceiba pentandra using two-year-old seeds from West Africa showed: ten seeds soaked cold water in a petri dish - two germinated within six days. Ten seeds soaked in 250 ml boiling water in a cup and left to soak for 24hrs 10/10 germinated within five days.

Other Names

If available other names are mentioned here

Kapok Tree or Ceiba pentandra. Other Names: Ai-lele, Araba, Bantam-o, Bantan, Bantanhe, Bili buraga, Breque, Buraga, Cob-be, Elevam, Fromager, Hattian, Ilavu, Ilavum, Ilivam, Kabu kabes, Kabu-kabu, Kafamba, Kapok-kapok, Katan, Kifampa, Koulbana, Kuci, M'bath, Marga, Mengkapas, Metchene, Msufi, Mullilavu, Mutunda, Myali, N'tene, Ngiu noi, Nun, Okha, Pandhari, Panji, Pentene, Pentia, Poilao, Poilon, Polom, Poor, Psahe, Pthae, Rimi, Rumbum, Rymy, Safed simal, Salmali, Schwetsimul, Sveta salmali, Tatafu, Tella buraga, Untepe, Usufu, Vavae.

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Found In

Countries where the plant has been found are listed here if the information is available

Found In: Africa, Andamans, Antigua and Barbuda, Asia, Australia, Belize, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Caribbean, Central Africa, Central America, China, Colombia, Congo, Congo R, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, East Africa, East Timor, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guiana, Guinea, GuinŽe, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Hawaii, India, Indochina, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Laos, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Martinique, Mexico, Micronesia, Mozambique, Nauru, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, North America, Pacific, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, PNG, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Rwanda, Samoa, SE Asia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Southern Africa, South America, St Lucia, Sudan, Suriname, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Uganda, USA, Venezuela, Vietnam, West Africa, West Indies, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Weed Potential

Right plant wrong place. We are currently updating this section. Please note that a plant may be invasive in one area but may not in your area so it’s worth checking.

None Known

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status : This taxon has not yet been assessed.

Related Plants
Latin NameCommon NameHabitHeightHardinessGrowthSoilShadeMoistureEdibleMedicinalOther
Bombax ceibaRed Silk Cotton Tree, Kapok TreeTree25.0 10-12 MLMHNDM224
Ceiba aesculifoliaPochoteTree25.0 10-12 MLMHNDM214

Growth: S = slow M = medium F = fast. Soil: L = light (sandy) M = medium H = heavy (clay). pH: A = acid N = neutral B = basic (alkaline). Shade: F = full shade S = semi-shade N = no shade. Moisture: D = dry M = Moist We = wet Wa = water.


Expert comment


(L.) Gaertn.

Botanical References

Links / References

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A special thanks to Ken Fern for some of the information used on this page.

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