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Kapok!

January 30, 2011

Around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand you commonly see young trees with green trunks and branches. This is the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra, Bombacaceae/Malvaceae).

Traditionally the silky fibers inside the fruits have been used as a substitute for cotton, and Ketsanee’s mother have stuffed pillows with kapok fibers. According to Mabberley, the Matico indians made arrow-proof jackets from kapok. Young shoots and fruits are edible, rich in protein and an important food for many monkeys.

‘Kapok’ is a Malayan word, adopted by the English. If you say ‘kapok’ to somebody speaking Central Thai, he will be insulted because in this language that word refers to the male genitalia. In central Thai it is called ‘ton non’, while in Esan (a language spoken in the Northeast Thailand) they call it ‘ton niu’, which must not be confused with ‘ton niu’ in northern Thai language, a name for the red kapok tree (Bombax ceiba, Bombacaceae/Malvaceae). By now, I hope you have realized how brilliant it is to use the international scientific plant names to avoid confusion and insults. The scientific genus name ‘Ceiba’ is a Spanish form of a word of the Taino language, spoken by an extinct tribe of Arawak people from the Greater Antilles and Bahamas. Ceiba means ‘giant tree’.

Having an importance for the textile industry, kapok trees were already introduced to India when the first European naturalists arrived in the 18th century. As it turned out, kapok is actually native to South America and Subsaharan Africa. In its home environment it can grow to 70 (100) meters tall, and people lost in the African bush learnt that if you walk towards the tallest trees you can see, they are usually kapoks planted near a village. Here in Thailand you rarely see them tall at all, since they tend to break easily. A huge kapok can be admired at the Singapore Botanic Garden. The light wood is similar to that of the related balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidale, Bombacaceae/Malvaceae).

A special feature this time of the year are the stiff flowers, only open at night and early mornings. Ketsanee, the owner of Dokmai Garden, said that as a child she used to suck the nectar from the flowers in the mornings. I followed her instructions and did it in the night. You pick a flower, remove the anthers and the pistil and look down into the flower. Now you realize this is indeed a relative of the mallows (Malvaceae). At the bottom of the flower you will see glistering clear nectar. The fragrance is weak, resembling one of crushed young banana leaves. Suck the nectar with your mouth, do not lick it, suck it in so that the cloud of nectar coats the entire mouth. Your brain will be hit by a lightning of rare flavours and sweetness. A most peculiar sensation, gone in a second, but leaving a memory of a lifetime!

If you can not find a clean tree on your own, you are most welcome to Dokmai Garden off opening hours to admire and taste kapok blossom. Phone us a day ahead to make an appointment (08-13866244).

Eric Danell

‘Pentandra’, the scientific species name, refers to the five conspicuous anthers (male flowering parts carrying the pollen). The sixth protruding element has no such yellow anther. That is the pistil, the female part receiving pollen for fertilization and subsequent seed and fruit production. Fruit bats are common pollinators in Thailand, while lemurs do the job in Madagascar.

Dokmai Garden’s kapok is now mature enough to produce its first blossom, at age 3.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. tomo permalink
    January 30, 2011 2:30 AM

    how nice it would be to fly over and hit by the flavor there right now. so this is kapok tree. would love to see the picture of the fresh fiber when you get one.

    • January 30, 2011 7:29 AM

      Dear Tomo, a fragrance/flavour button would be useful, downloading the electrical signals from the receptors in mouth and nose….

  2. tomo permalink
    February 11, 2011 12:22 AM

    yes indeed. but i still rather go there of course. the humidity and warmth perhaps would cure me good.

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