The case for Silk Cotton

The case for Silk Cotton

silk cotton, Kapok

The case for silk cotton and not cotton

The majestic silk cotton tree (kapok tree or by its Latin name Ceiba pentandra) was, from origin, a native of the South American rain forests, although these days it is found  in tropical climbs  not only in South America but also in south east Asia and tropical Africa and form an important part in the eco-system’s in these regions. It can grown to a height of 60 meters or more, with a  a trunk of more than 3 meters in circumference. Strange protruding “roots “ grow out of the base for stabilisation and these are home to many many frogs, birds and other little animals. The silk  cotton tree can live to become quite old even though it’s wood is soft and it is fast growing. One of the oldest known trees which is about  200 years old, is to be found  in Miami, Florida.

Silk cotton trees loose their leaves in the dry season, and at the end of the dry season beautiful, but stinking, red or white flowers appear. This awful perfume is attractive to bats who are the chief pollinators.  After the flowers the big seed pods (15 cm) appear and these contain the fibre that we know as Kapok.

Kapok is used for filling in quilts and cushions and matrasses. The fibres are much lighter than cotton, have buoyancy, and to a certain point are water resistant, but on the down side is highly flammable.

In Surinam the indigenous medicine uses the bark for an aphrodisiac and as a diuretic in kidney disease(reduces excess water in the body) Other parts of the tree are used to treat :- headaches, asthma , dysentery, fevers, venereal diseases, menstrual bleeding, diabetes 2 and all kidney diseases.

It is used as an additive in Ayahuasca ( the holy hallucinogenic drink of the Amazonian Indians)

  Mayan mythology states that the souls of the departed climb the tree to reach heaven.

In Trinidad, as the story goes,  the demon of wealth (Bazil) was imprisoned in huge Kapok tree deep in the forest by a carpenter. He carved seven beautiful rooms in the tree (one on top of the other) and lured the demon into it and then sealed the entrance. It is said that Bazil is still there!

In Burkina Faso the masks made by the Mossi people are traditionally made from the wood of the Silk Cotton tree ( it is very light and easy to carve being of the same family as balsawood)

Kapok oil has some potential as a biofuel, and as such it is in danger of exploitation by the multinationals which may put its future in jeopardy.

At the moment  the tree is cultivated for its seed fibre, particularly in south-east Asia, the problems being that kapok (silk cotton ) is labour intensive to harvest and that it is difficult to spin.

Its fibres maybe difficult to spin and harvest but it can be harvested without damage to the tree. It can be grown without using harmful pesticides because insects find it unattractive. It needs no irrigation and will even thrive in arid conditions although its yield will be diminished. Kapok fibres are 1/8 of the weight of cotton thus transportation costs are greatly reduced but it has to be mixed with another fibre to use it for spinning and weaving because the fibres are so short and fragile.

Products made of silk cotton are useful for people with dust mites allergies because silk cotton contains something that dusts mites find abhorrent and cannot breed in it. Silk cotton fibre is allergy free and softer than cotton. It is very light and thin and really comfortable to wear.

The seed oil makes a very effective natural fertiliser.

I still am not seeing silk cotton fibre products being marketed here,  even by the eco friendly companies. I do see lots of “bio cotton” even though large tracts of Uzbekistan have been lain waste in the wests quenchless thirst for cheap cotton (did you know it takes 7000 litres of water to make the pair of jeans you are wearing). I’m all for silk cotton garments which are the height of coolness in India –you know-- that third world backward country, but now I am beginning to wonder just who is backward?


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