Saturday, June 2, 2012

Cotton From Trees?

Kapok Ceiba pentandra in KolkataWest BengalIndia.
Note: 'This closely resembles the cotton tree fruit in Liberia as well'
photo by J. M. Garg

The scientific name is ceiba pentandra (variety guineensis).  In Liberia it is called the 'cotton tree'.  As you can tell from the above picture of its fruit the name fits.  These cotton trees are easy to recognize even when they are not covered with their cotton-like fiber.  This is because they tower above the surrounding forest standing 'head and shoulders" above the rest.

The famous Cotton Tree of Robertsport

author playing in a cotton tree
The trees have a spreading plank buttress trunk that look like folded wood drapes in larger trees.  One could sneak between the folds of the spreading trunk and be completely hidden from view!  The trunk also often has prickly sections of thorns that I suppose detract enemies of the plant.  The trunk itself is an amazing work of organic sculpture that brought out the boy in me.  I had fun climbing around on its roots and trunk folds.

Some of the prickly thorns that can grow on the trunk of a cotton tree (ceiba pentandra)

Cotton tree in Zondobli, GBC, Liberia
Varieties of this tree grow in all sorts of tropical climates around the world.  Some scientist speculate that the tree actually originates in the Americas and a variety of this tree was sacred to the Mayans as a tree of life which was climbed upon death.  Some however speculate that it originates in Africa.  The variety in Liberia seems to me to be bigger than most, if not the biggest variety.  Of a related note is the fact that the tree seems to have held some sort of sacred meaning to some Liberians as well.  In reading about ancient customs of the Bassa tribe, for example, I found that sometimes the youngest son of the chief was buried with his father.  This cruel practice involved placing the live child in the ground with his deceased father holding a bowl that contained the seeds of the cotton tree.  The cotton tree that would later grow from this grave site would be a sort of memorial to the chief.  Perhaps it holds some of the same associations with death that the Mayans held?  Whatever the case, whenever I saw a cotton tree I always wondered if this was the old grave of a chief and some poor child was unwillingly planted with this tree.

Mom by a cotton tree near Doedehn, GBC, Liberia c. 1985

Folding trunk of the Cotton Tree of Robertsport
The trees can grow upwards of 200 ft. tall and can have a trunk of immense diameter as you can tell from these pics.  I have seen cotton trees even bigger than this one near the beach at Robertsport.  However, this particular tree has a legend with it in that J. J. Roberts (the first president of Liberia) arrived here in the late 1800's on a ship from the United States that tied itself to this tree.  Hence, the name of this town: Robertsport.  As a historical aside, Roberts was actually born in Norfolk, VA and today would've been considered a US citizen.  He was sent to Africa under the guidance of the American Colonization Society in their efforts to send "free people of color" back to Africa.  This whole ordeal is a part of US history often overlooked and ties our nation with the nation of Liberia in ways that need to be further explored.  In a way, this historical tree symbolizes this US - Liberia connection.  Whether it is the stuff of legends or not one cannot deny this beautiful giant is hundreds of years old and worthy of the preservation efforts that it has received in the past.

Looking up at a cotton tree
The cotton tree can offer more than just the pleasure of looking at it.  From what I've read people have tried to use the cotton-like fiber of these trees like regular cotton, although they have found it difficult to spin.  Therefore, it is mostly used as filler when harvested for commercial purposes and this is done today in parts of SE Asia where it is harvested.  The seeds found in the fiber are sometimes pressed for their oil which is found to be fairly resistant to drying out.  The wood of the tree itself is light and easy to carve and Liberians have used it for boats, mortars and carvings among other things.  I would hope though that not too many of these amazing trees are harvested in the rampant de-forestation that has plagued Liberia recently.  More about that later....

I'll end with a short video of the Cotton Tree of Robertsport so that you can better appreciate the size and beauty of this amazing tree.


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