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Saturday, April 7, 2012
KAPOK TREE - SAVED FROM BEING ENDANGERED BY MAN-MADE STUFFING: HISTORY AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF THE KAPOK TREE
The kapok tree towers over the others in its native rainforests in
South America and has made its way to West Africa where it has established itself. It is thought that the seeds floated between the continents of South America and Africa. In other parts of the world’s tropics, this tree has been planted as in the 1940s the kapok it produces was in demand for stuffing soft furnishings, car seats and life preservers. Now synthetic materials are used and perhaps this has saved the Ceiba pentandra from near extinction. However it is in danger in Costa Rica where it is felled to make pallets.
Luckily the wood is not highly prized in the West but is used by people where it grows for coffins, dugout canoes and carvings. The kapok is the silky fine hairs which are attached to the seeds which grow in fruit after the white or perhaps pink flowers have fallen.
This tree used to belong to the Bombacaceae family but it has been moved to the Malvaceae family. It is related to Bombax ceiba, the red silk cotton tree, which also produces kapok, as well as to the dinner plate tree, hollyhocks, the musk mallow, common mallow, Indian or country mallow, marsh mallow, hibiscus, durian fruit and okra to name but a few of its relatives.
In the rainforest it gives home and shelter to the bromeliads, frogs, birds and insects which find the nooks and crannies in its trunk very inviting. The flowers have a particularly unpleasant pungent odour which attracts the bats which are believed to pollinate it. The seeds in the fruit are oil-producers and this can be made into soap.
The kapok tree has its medicinal uses too and these vary depending on where it grows, In Samoa the bark is used for asthma, while in the Philippines where trees were planted, the bark is regarded as useful for fever, as a diuretic, for diarrhoea and as a purgative. It is also applied to swollen fingers and wounds, while an infusion is used as mouthwash.
A decoction of the flowers is given for constipation and an infusion of the leaves is used for coughs, hoarseness, catarrh and uterine discharge. The tender young leaves are used for gonorrhoea, as are the tender tap roots, which are also used in cases of dysentery. The unripe fruit is demulcent, emollient and astringent so useful to soothe the mucous membrane in cases of bronchitis and so on. A decoction of the roots is given for diarrhoea and chronic dysentery while the gum from the bark is astringent and styptic so good for wound healing. It is sometimes given in milk to children who have diarrhoea or who are incontinent.
Clinical studies have shown that the stem bark has liver protective properties and the tree has antioxidant properties, (leaves and stem bark) while root extracts have been found to have anti-diabetic properties.
This tree may have lost its raison d’être as far as kapok for stuffing goes, but it could have many health benefits for us.