by Jack Ewing
The most noteworthy old tree that has passed on during my time at Hacienda Barú was an enormous old kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), called the ceibo or ceiba tree in Spanish, that once dominated the skies near what is today El Ceibo Service Station. Its familiar form, tall straight trunk and umbrella top, was a well known landmark for travelers and also for fisherman who could see it from as far as two kilometers offshore. Every year the wood storks roosted in its crown for a couple of nights during their annual migration. Barn owls could be heard at night calling from its branches, and a multitude of bats took shelter in its hollow trunk. Only God knows how old it was when the massive tree crashed to earth on August 11, 1989.
The kapoks are truly amazing in many ways. They have evolved to dominate rainforest clearings which are created when any large tree topples taking many of its neighbors to the ground with it. When a kapok germinates in such a clearing its early growth is phenomenal. One tree planted in 2013 measured 6 meters tall at only 4 years, and another soared to 30 meters in height and 2.4 meters in circumference at 12 years. Other smaller species are left below and never catch up. After reaching about 70 meters the kapoks stop climbing, increase in girth, and thicken and expand their enormous buttress roots. By this time, and barring a lightening strike, the kapoks will tower 10 to 20 meters above the rainforest canopy. They are the most massive trees in our rainforests.
In years past, the long, cylindrical kapok trunks were sought after by boat makers, hollowed out, and used to fashion the hulls of large vessels called bongos. Daring bongo captains once sailed the seas from Costa Ballena to the markets of Puntarenas bringing much needed trade to the region. They carried corn, rice, bananas, plantains, and even live pigs to Puntarenas and returned with much needed items such as salt, cloth and sewing materials, shovels, picks, machetes, other tools, medicines, ammunition and other items not available along the southern coast. The bongos played a key role in the history of this part of Costa Rica.
In the dry season a silky cotton-like material known as kapok bursts forth from the pods, and floats on the breeze, carrying the seeds tangled within its fibers. A few of the seeds will fall on a small patch of fertile soil in a clearing where a new tree will sprout forth. Kapok was once used for stuffing mattresses and pillows, and its buoyancy made it especially useful as a filler for life jackets. Kapok trees were even cultivated in some places solely for the commercial production of the fluffy material.
Entire ecosystems are found in the massive crowns of kapok trees. Branches larger than the trunks of most trees provide support for bromeliads, which shelter untold numbers of insects, small amphibians and reptiles. Many of these tiny creatures are born, live their entire lives, and die in the crown of a single kapok tree. Once each year, when beautiful white blooms adorn the umbrella-shaped top, bats converge to feed on the nectar. One botanist has estimated that one flowering tree will produce up to two gallons of nectar daily. The boles of many older trees are hollow and provide shelter for numerous species of mammals, reptiles and insects.
Is it any wonder that the kapok trees were revered by the Mayas? They believed that the enormous kapok crown high above the rainforest canopy connected to heaven, the tall straight trunk formed a pathway to the massive buttress roots anchored firmly in the soil, and thus completed the connection between heaven and earth. And, who knows? Maybe they do.