We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this magestic, mighty and possibly magical tree.
A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.
All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.
The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.
The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.
Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.
Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree.
The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestial realm in which we live and the underworld (Xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.