Today in Key West: Red Cotton Tree

Bombax ceiba overhanging the street 022716 640


When you look up, you see farther. For a plant geek in the tropics, that's highly likely to mean more possibilities for full-sized trees with extravagant flowers that may well thrive in a container up North, at a fraction of their free-range size and with an even better level of performance.


No, this is not the flamboyant tree—already on my even-better-in-a-pot list—nor another form of African tulip tree. Heavy cantilevering branches, Winter-deciduous foliage, and red flowers the size of those of many a northern magnolia? This can only be a cousin of the kapok: the red cotton tree.


Five large, thick, lipstick-red petals emerge from each impressive bud. Sunlight streams through the petals thrillingly and, with blue sky at their back, their color sings even more. But the flowers face up and out, and when you can observe them on the hoof only from twenty feet below, you're not seeing more than the back end of the horse.


Bombax ceiba blossoms backlighted in the tree 022716 640


Trees with weighty flowers are best not planted where their branches overhang grass or paving: The litter underfoot is only charming the first few days, then it's a just a mess.


Bombax ceiba blossoms on the sidewalk 022716 640


Worse, the flowers only drop when they are nearing or past their sell-by dates. Plus, the force of impact when they are as heavy as these usually snaps petals that were likely to have become tattered already. But every so often—as with the blossom on the left below—there's evidence of the quality of display I might see if only I'd brought my jet pack and could appreciate the flowers when they and I were both aloft. 


Bombax ceiba blossoms details on the sidewalk 022716 640 


A minute's more hunt through the fallen flowers yielded one that seemed undamaged. 


Bombax ceiba in hand 022616 640


Stunning as they are, the petals of Bombax ceiba flowers are just the beginning, the literal backdrop to the finer details at the blossom's center. There, creamy bases of the five "bouquets" of stamens flare to the same red as that of the petals, and are tipped by anthers the color and size of ground pepper: a spicy touch. At the center is a quintet of pistils, each tipped with a peppercorn-like stigma. Spicy, indeed. 


Bombax ceiba in hand 022616 closer 640


And yes, the petals are that shiny! What a sumptuous display—except, as below, when last season's leaves don't drop cleanly. 


Bombax ceiba blossoms up in the tree with old foliage behind 022716 640


There's no way to hasten their release from a tree that's full-sized. But tidying a canopy no taller than I am would be quick and easy.


Trees that flower early in the year do so from growth that was, at least in part, formed the previous season—and, often, that must have arisen from wood that is even older. Pruning to control size must be done only right after flowering to allow time for that first season of maturity.  Even so, the pruning must allow for the continuing presence of the older scaffolding branches. What is the minimum size at which a containered Bombax ceiba could be maintained while still flowering happily? And could the necessary pruning also ensure that flowering would be even more enthusiastic than when the tree is free-range?


The first step to firming up the possibilitie is to put Bombax ceiba on my wishlist. Done.


By the way: "red cotton?" Each seed has a tuft of red cottony filaments attached. They enable the seeds to float on the wind when released, not fall to shady and rooty ground beneath the mother tree. The filaments aren't durable or long enough to be spun into thread for a fabric.



I'll profile Bombax ceiba when I can feature a containered specimen in flower in my garden.

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