The Seaman's Savior

According to an ancient myth of Mayan people of southern Mexico, man originally sprang from a giant tree. So, thereafter, they held that tree sacred. The revered tree, one of the largest in all of tropical America, was the ceiba (Ceiba pentandra).

Ceibas can grow to 150' heights and diameters of 7', with a cylindrical trunk that may even bulge somewhat above the base. Because of the tree's size, its habit of branching at distinct right angles to the trunk, and ample foliage, it offers lots of shade. For this reason, you'll find ceiba trees planted in the busy market squares of towns throughout Mexico and South America.

Locally, ceiba's straight-grained, pinkish-white heartwood becomes plywood and plywood core stock, lumber for light construction, and paper pulp. Natives also rely on ceiba for rafts and canoes. In fact, its use is so widespread in Guatemala that ceiba has become the national tree. But little ceiba wood ever gets far from its native land. Instead, the tree has earned world-wide recognition for a fluffy by-product.

Ceiba trees, it seems, annually form large black seed pods a few months after their leaves fall. The pods contain a light, buoyant floss just perfect for stuffing sleeping bags, mattresses, and pillows. And before its almost total replacement by man-made materials, the floss—called kapok—filled millions of life jackets and preservers. And these, in turn, saved untold sailors from watery graves on the world's high seas.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson