Silk Floss Tree, Drunken Stick (Hibiscus Family)
Ceiba speciosa (Malvaceae)
Origin: Subtropical South America
Recently moved to the genus Ceiba from Chorisia, the Silk Floss Tree is a beautiful blooming tree currently undergoing an identity crisis. Its family was recently changed from Bombacaceae, also now defunct, to Malvaceae, the hibiscus family. here has been much confusion amongst botanists and taxonomists regarding this group of plants. The true Kapok tree, Ceiba pentandra, is notorious for difficult identification. The Kapok, the Silk-Cotton Tree, and the Silk Floss Tree all have similar flower structure, massive thorny trunks, and large seed pods full of a cotton-like material which aides in wind-driven seed dispersal (the true cotton plants are also in the Malvaceae.) The Silk Floss Tree is usually the first in the group to bloom once our dry season has begun.
The Silk Floss Tree is a deciduous tree, native to the subtropical, seasonally dry forests of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. They do very well in South Florida as well as Southern California, and are often planted as street trees. Early on in their growth, most trunks develop a swollen base, and can resemble a wine bottle, albeit a thorny one. The thorns are a defensive mechanism to protect a trunk that basically has no bark, just a very thin cuticle. Any animal climbing up the trunk could do serious damage to the delicate cambium layer beneath. The trunks at this stage are green, usually with lateral stripes or furrows, and actually act as agents of photosynthesis while the trees are leafless. Later in life, the thorns tend to lessen and the trunks become more protected by a grey bark.
Considered one of the most beautiful trees in the world, Ceiba speciosa is typically cultivated for its looks, although some tribes in South America have used components of the tree in food production (oil derived from the seeds) and as an ayahuasca additive. It is also interesting to note that although humans have discovered all of the continents on the planet, and most of the flora and fauna, much derision exists amongst experts on what we have already found and named. DNA work is now aiding in this new search. Human beings will never stop exploring; it is encoded in our genes. Selby Gardens has two Ceiba speciosa trees (although the display signs still say “Chorisia,” located on the west side of the hibiscus garden).
Text by David Troxell