The cotton ball tree

Did you know?

Although San Diego is defined as a desert in terms of annual rainfall, it also has a Mediterranean climate, so if you can meet the water needs of virtually any plant, it can grow here in San Diego. There even are redwood groves at the San Diego Zoo (coming out of the polar bear exhibit) and at Safari Park (going up to Condor Ridge).

One of the more unusual trees that grows here is what I call the “cotton ball tree.” Looks like this:

img_5749 floss silk tree stamp

img_5748 floss silk tree stamp

flower (21) floss silk tree flower stamp

Pictures copyright 2012 Russel Ray Photos

The top two pictures were taken at the San Diego Zoo. The tree is so tall that I had missed it until a few years ago when it was dropping flowers and cotton balls. I asked at the Information Booth what the name of the “cotton ball tree” was. They knew exactly which tree I was talking about.

It’s a silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa).

The lower part of the trunk often is swollen, while young tree trunks and the upper trunk and branches of older trees are covered with thorns. Roses don’t have anything on this tree!

file000023991 silk floss tree stamp

_MG_9162 silk floss tree thorns framed

Pictures copyright 2012 Russel Ray Photos

The silk floss tree is a deciduous tree native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South America, mainly in Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, northeast Argentina, and southern Brazil.

It is resistant to drought and moderate cold, and grows quite fast when water is abundant. It can get up to 82 feet tall. In an unusual twist for trees, the trunk is green, which means that it is capable of photosynthesis when leaves are absent. In older trees, the lower part of the trunk usually turns to gray. The swollen trunk stores water, as do the thorns.

The fruit is a ligneous ovoid pod, which sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel. They look like this:

_MG_8748 framed

IMG_0917 framed

Pictures copyright 2012 Russel Ray Photos

Once the pods ripen, they burst open to reveal a mass of cotton balls surrounding seeds the size and color of black beans.

img_3021 floss silk tree stamp

Pictures copyright 2012 Russel Ray Photos

The cotton is used as stuffing (think pillows) and in packaging, and to make canoes, paper, and ropes. The seeds provide both edible and industrial vegetable oil.

Pictures copyright 2012 Russel Ray Photos

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35 thoughts on “The cotton ball tree

    1. Russel Ray Photos Post author

      I guess the only thing to do is buy an expensive organic mattress and tear it apart to find out……..LOL…………..I probably shouldn’t laugh. Shortly after my wise old grandmother adopted me when I was 11, I had gone to bed when the pillow poked me. “How can a pillow poke you?” I asked. She said that the pillow had chicken feathers in it. I didn’t believe her, so the next day when I came home from school, I got a knife and sliced open the pillow. Well, guess what? Yep. Chicken feathers. And guess which little boy got the whipping of his life?

      Liked by 3 people

  1. europasicewolf

    That silk moss tree looks like my leg! It’ll be interesting if the x- ray on knee on Monday reveals my leg has indeed transmuted into one of these trees! I love the cotton balls 🙂 Very different. ..and very cool and so pretty with those pink flowers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Zack

    I always see interesting plants at the zoo. The Akron Zoo has a really great flower garden that’s just as much of an attraction as any of the animals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Russel Ray Photos Post author

      The San Diego Zoo is both an internationally recognized zoo and an internationally recognized botanic garden. There are over 300,000 plants representing 3,500 plant species on its 1,900 acres. I always tell visitors to slow down and look at the plants as well as the animals. The plants won’t look back at you or do silly things, but they like being looked at, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Claudia Uerkvitz

    I found 2 of these trees at 610 Euclid, national city, ca. Those cottony balls and thorns had me going. So nice to describe the tree to my browser to find out what it is and immediately to you blog! One of them is full of those pods, too. I got some pics of them, too.


  4. delphini510

    Great story about the cotton balls and the tree. It reminded me of a song
    I have heard from one American lady. It is called ” Don’t fence me in ”
    and mentions the Cottonwood tree often. Had never known about this tree


    Liked by 1 person

  5. philipfontana

    Russel Ray, You are so many things from photographer to teacher of all you explore & so many more hats you where! I never thought of San Diego as a desert &, yet, with a Mediterranean climate! And this lesson in photos & word of the silk floss tree is an education for me as well! Your photos & details about the tree, its fruit, & trunk are fascinating! Thanks for your recent burst of “Likes” & comments on my My website as yours goes back to January 2012. But my website is dormant for now & may stay that way! The short story is that our old 1885 house of 44 years sold in January. We purchased a townhouse 20 minutes away here in New Jersey in February. We moved in April. As if moving & setting up & fixing up the new place were not enough, wife Geri became ill mid-May with diverticulosis of the intestine which she has had for 25-30 years. She has managed it well with few flare-ups through fiber diet & water intake. This time it was very bad. After THREE months of suffering through great pain & inflammation with 6 lab tests & 8 doctor visits, the surgeon finally operated August 12. Unfortunately, Geri was left with a temporary colostomy bag for the next 4 months or so with the expectation of surgery to reconnect. The surgeon said from what he discovered removing 8 inches of intestine; the intestine was so blocked he doesn’t know how anything was moving through it, he does not know how Geri endued the pain for three months, & someone else would have gone to the Emergency Room. What annoys us is that this surgeon treated Geri 5 weeks before surgery & did not say, “I’ll meet you in the ER!” After 5 weeks of recovery Geri can do most everything except vacuum. That’s my job. And she started driving again last week. I will reply to you comments on my website! Thanks for thinking of me. You are one of the people & websites I have wanted to reach out to all these months! Phil

    Liked by 1 person


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