The silk floss tree

There are many fabulous trees in the world but we can grow only a small proportion of them in our British temperate climate. Here’s the tropical silk floss tree, Ceiba speciosa, which originates from Brazil and Argentina, but can be seen growing on streets in Barcelona. What a lucky city that is!

There’s something prehistoric about the silk floss tree. Its trunk is swollen like a bottle and armed with the most vicious looking spines. You could never climb it without serious protection! Perhaps they evolved to protect the tree from giant South American sloths, which are now extinct.

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The leaves are glossy and palmate, and the flowers fabulously exotic. They are about 12cm across with 5 pink petals joined to an orange and red centre. There are huge sex organs (styles and stamens) which stick proudly out of the middle.

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And the fruit too is strange, bursting open with silky hairs and seeds.

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It is of course a relative of the kapok tree which produces a fibre used for stuffing cushions and a member of the notable tropical tree family Bombacaceae. This is a remarkable group in itself including many strange members such as the baobab, the durian, balsa wood and of course kapok. The trees often have swollen trunks or even massive elephantine trunks and branches which help store water, and I guess that is what the soft balsa wood is designed for. Other members of the family such as Bombax and other Ceiba species have light timbers which are used for making matchsticks.

The trees are also deciduous, so may lose their leaves in the dry or colder seasons.

In Barcelona you can see these trees where the major boulevard Avinguda del Parallel reaches the port – close to the bottom of the famous Ramblas. There are several of these marvellous trees in this park amongst the palms. If you’re lucky they will be in flower and fruit at the same time.

Barcelona has a favourable climate and a great collection of street trees. The city council’s website goes into some detail on its street trees and reveals that these silk floss trees are believed to be 80 years old, but were only planted in their present location in 1992 for the Olympic games. Fortunately they are doing well!

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