The Silk Cotton or Ceiba Tree [Ceiba pentandra (L.) Gaertn.] is one of the largest trees in the American tropics. The tree has played an important role in the spiritual and economic lives of the peoples who live in the circum-Caribbean region.
The Ceiba is a rapidly growing deciduous tree that reaches heights of 80 feet or more, and a diameter of five to eight feet above its buttresses. The buttresses themselves can be up to ten feet tall and extend ten feet from the main trunk. The tree has a broad, flat crown of horizontal branches. The leaves are compound with five to eight lance-shaped leaflets that are three to eight inches long. From December to February the tree produces numerous five-part whitish to pink flowers which occur in dense clusters and bloom before the leaves appear. The tree produces three-to-six-inch long, elliptical fruits.
These fruits contain many seeds surrounded by a dense mat of cottony fibers. The tree gets its common name from these fibers which rain from the tree when the fruits ripen. The fibers are almost pure cellulose, buoyant, impervious to water, and have a low thermal conductivity, but they do not lend themselves to spinning. Called Kapok in Asia, the fibers are used for insulation, padding in sleping bags and life preservers, and for stuffing mattresses and pillows. In Puerto Rico the tree was often planted in the center of plazas for shade, and it is considered a valuable Money Tree.