The huge and imposing silk cotton tree is found in many parts of the Caribbean. forest. It can grow to a height of more than 200 feet and its widely spreading branches often forms a crown measuring 140 feet in diameter. The silk cotton tree (which is buttressed) often grows to more than 9 feet in diameter, taking 60 to 70 years to reach maturity.
Occasionally homeless people live in the trunks of silk cotton trees, finding shelter from sun, rain and wind in the hollows between the buttresses growing from the trunk. Other creatures, notably snakes, sleep under the silk cotton and even lay eggs there.
This tree has the scientific name “Ceiba petandra”, but it is also known as the kapok tree, the ceiba tree and the Coomacka (Kumaka) tree. It also grows in West Africa and the East Indies.
Silk cotton wood has been used to make coffins, cricket bats, and much earlier, canoes. One of the Spanish names for the tree is “ceiba” which comes from the Spanish name for canoe.
The silk cotton has never become commercially important in the Caribbean, but it is significant that it has been held in great dread by people from several cultural backgrounds. The tree has been held sacred by the ancient Mayas, by people who have originated in Africa generally, notably the Bushnegroes of Suriname, and by Amerindians. Their attitude towards the tree may be described as one of both reverence and fear.
In some Caribbean countries, the silk cotton tree is called the “god tree’ or the “devil tree.” In Guyana, it has been called the “jumbie tree.” The tree has been regarded by some as having a soul or a resident spirit. But it was most often it is considered to be associated with the souls of the dead, living possibly in its roots and branches. In the 19th Century it was common to find people who would affirm that silk cotton trees could, of their own accord, move about and gather together as if to consult one another.
In Trinidad, there were huge silk cotton forests. These forests were frequented by followers of the The Rada Cult of Belmont who worshipped Damballah, the great snake god, and the silk cotton tree at Belmont Circular Road was the subject of many strange stories. Port of Spain occupies an area that was once called “Cumucurapo” – the place of the silk cotton trees. This name was recorded as Conquerabia by the Europeans.
Picton, the British Governor of Trinidad from 1797 to 1802, had most of these silk cotton trees cut down because they were frequented by the practitioners of “native arts.”
In Jamaica, it was said that the Spanish would bury treasure under a silk cotton tree, then kill the slave who buried it, so that the slave’s spirit would guard the treasure and no one would dare dig for it. The same story is told in Guyana, except that it was the Dutch, rather than the Spanish, who would use this method to guard treasure. The Halfway Tree, which gave its name to a district in Kingston, was a silk cotton tree which dated from the British Conquest of 1655 and survived until the late 19th Century.
According to legend, Gang Gang Sara, the African witch of Tobago, climbed a silk cotton tree in Les Coteaux and tried to fly back to Africa. She forgot that because she had eaten salt (reminiscent of the ol’ higue or hag or sucouyant) she could no longer fly. Gang Gang Sara died instantly. Her grave is one of the tourist sites in Tobago.
Obeahmen claimed to be able to cast a spell by driving a nail into a silk cotton tree, then call on an evil spirit to cause someone’s soul to leave his body and live in the tree.
In some areas no one would dare cut down a silk cotton tree. In others, before cutting down a silk cotton tree village folk would pour a libation on its roots or ceremonially make an offering of corn, or sacrifice a chicken.
Sir Phillip Sherlock in his West Indian Folk Tales, tells a Carib myth of the first “coomacka tree” which provided food for mankind.
Commercially, the silk cotton tree, is cultivated in some tropical regions for its fiber, known as kapok. The cotton-
The round seeds of the silk cotton, the size of peas, are eaten on the Indonesian island of Celebes. The seeds also yield kapok oil, used in making certain edible products and in the production of soap. The ground seeds are used in animal feed.
The leaves and bark of the tree can be used medicinally. In Suriname's traditional medicine, the seeds, leaves, bark and resin, from the kapok tree are used for: dysentery, fevers, venereal diseases, asthma, menstruation bleedings and kidney diseases.