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Kapok

Kapok (Ceiba pentandra) is a tropical tree of the order Malvales and the family Bombacaceae, native to South America. The word is also used for the fibre obtained from its seed pods. The tree is also known as the Java Cotton, Java Kapok, or Silk Cotton tree. Referred to as Ceiba it is a symbol in Mayan mythology.

The tree grows over 30 m and has a very substantial trunk up to 3 m in diameter with buttresses, the leaves are compound of 5 to 9 leaflets, each up to 20 cm and palm like. Adult trees produce several hundred 15 cm seed pods. The pods contain seeds surrounded by a fluffy, yellowish fibre that is a mix of lignin and cellulose. The process of harvesting and separating the fibre is labour-intensive and manual.

The fibre is light, very bouyant, resilient, highly flammable and resistant to water. It cannot be spun but is used as a filling for bedding and upholstery, and for insulation. It was previously much used in life jackets and similar devices. The fibre has been largely replaced by man-made materials. The seeds produce an oil used locally in soap and that can be used as fertilizer.

The commercial tree is most heavily cultivated in Asia, notably in Java (hence its nicknames), Malaysia, and Indonesia, but also in the Philippines, and South America.

A similar fibre is found in the Indian Bombax malabarica, it is termed Indian kapok and is darker in colour and less bouyant than the true variety.



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