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What’s in a Name?

Pink-Flowering Floss Silk Tree


They will not stop, so don’t even worry about it; botanists will keep refining their knowledge about the evolutionary history of plants, and they will change the official, botanical names of plants ad infinitum. One of the latest name changes of note is a tree that was imported from afar and has been grown here for many decades (maybe more than a century). Most gardeners know them as the pink-flowering floss silk tree and its close cousin, the white floss silk tree. Formerly in the genus Chorisia, here’s the drumroll for their new names — Ceiba speciosa and Ceiba insignis.

These two trees, in flower right now, are putting on a fantastic show. Both species have large, five-petaled flowers up to four or more inches across; C. speciosa with large, dark-pink flowers and C. insignis with white or ivory blossoms. What follows the bloom season is just as wonderful. Each flower that is pollinated produces a large, woody pod (6-8 inches long) that bursts when mature to release hundreds of seeds. A unique feature of these seeds is that they are attached to a bit of down that expands and floats on the faintest of breezes to carry the seeds to a new home. This fluff has long been called kapok. Kapok is not collected and utilized so much these days, but less than a century ago, it was still harvested and used to fill pillows and stuff into furniture and toys and was one of the buoyant substances packed in life jackets. In its native lands in South America, it was used to pad arrow-proof vests by the Matucana tribespeople, as well.

Kapok trees are relatives of the ornamental hibiscus, as well as the regal baobab trees native to South Africa and Madagascar. Their Australian cousins in the genus Brachychiton also sport a bottle-shaped trunk. The fast-growing floss silk trees are undemanding in terms of maintenance. Besides the annual floral display, these drought-adapted trees have bulging trunks that store water through the dry season. They also sport impressive thorns. These threatening outgrowths look like rose thorns on steroids but pose no real threat as long as a little respect for them is shown during nearby garden maintenance.

The few pods may shed a little fluff now and then, but the trees more than make up for this by their commanding presence. Mature trees will grow to 30-50 feet in height with a pyramidal or umbrella-shaped crown. They do go through a brief deciduous period, usually just before the flowers emerge. In favorable years, this stage is very short, and sometimes the new leaves emerge well before the flowers have faded. To get a glimpse of them in their full glory, check out several specimens in Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens on the Santa Barbara Street side. C. speciosa is also planted along the last block of Santa Barbara Street (above Pedregosa) and the repetitive rank of swollen, thorny trunks has a truly prehistoric aspect. Enjoy the autumnal floral display of these trees, no matter what the botanists have decided to call them.

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Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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