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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ceiba pentandra, The Kapok Tree

Kapok tree in SPPK, Ipoh

Ceiba pentandra is a tropical rainforest tree that is native to Mexico, Central America and tropical west Africa. The kapok trees that occur naturally in South America are known as the "Giants of the Amazon Rainforest". They are huge trees that can rise up to 200 ft (70m) tall, towering above the canopy of the tropical rainforest. It has a substantial trunk with thorny bark and buttress roots. In Mayan mythology, the Ceiba tree is sacred, connecting the Universe, Heaven, Earth and Hell. It is believed that the souls of the dead would climb up into the branches which reach into heaven.

Today, I'm going to write about our version of the Kapok tree which is commonly found in the rural areas and villages all over South East Asia. It is a small to medium size tree with smooth bark. It is in a cultivated form which probably came from Africa and introduced to Asia more than 10 centuries ago.

Scientific name: Ceiba pentandra
Common name: The Silk Cotton Tree, Java cotton, Java kapok
Family: Malvaceae (previously Bombacaceae)
Native plant of : South America and Africa

My article about this tree appeared in the New Straits Times Press on June 5th, 2010:
A Useful Tree

“Ceiba pentandra, The Kapok Tree”, a copyrighted post, was written for My Nice Garden blog by Autumn Belle @ on May 6th, 2010

Kapok tree near the front entrance gates of KTAR, Setapak, KL

Kapok trees bloom periodically. The flowers are said to produce an unpleasant odour that attract bats in the evenings. The bats feast on the nectar and help to pollinate the flowers.

The ripe fruit pods which are woody will burst open while still on the tree. They look like overflowing bags of cotton hanging from the tree.

This deciduous tree may shed all of its leaves during a dry season.

The pods are woody, smooth and pendulous with a light green colour that changes to brown when ripe. Adult trees produce a few hundred seed pods. Each pod is about 15cm (6 in) long.

The pods are quite hard when ripe. Inside these pods are the fluffy, silky and yellowish cottony fibres that enable the seeds to float away on air, thereby dispersing them to faraway places.

The brown seeds are round like peas. Some locals say the seeds look like goat droppings. Each fruit contains about 200 seeds.

The fibre is light, very bouyant, resilient and resistant to water. It is difficult to spin, unlike cotton which can be spun into yarns and threads for the textile industry. The process of harvesting and separating the fibre is labour intensive and done manually. The tree itself is not cut down during harvesting, only the seed pods are removed and the fiber within extracted.

Villages use a long pole to reach for those pods that had cracked open. The fibres are collected and stored in gunny sacks. The seeds are sorted out by hand.

We use the fibre as stuffings in pillows, bolsters, mattresses, upholstery and stuff toys. The locals call this fibre, "Kekabu". I think kekabu make great bedding materials. Unlike other materials, kekabu pillows and mattress are cool and therapeutic. It bends according to your body shape. For a kid, it is like being your mom's embrace. Sleeping on it is like enjoying a spa.

My Story:
When I was little I used to have this 'smelly pillow' that I was very fond of. I would carry it around everywhere I went. It was soft, good to touch and hug, and cool to sleep on. It even had a familiar, soothing scent which made sleep so very easy and comfortable. There was no need for any bedtime stories. What was so special about this pillow was that it was made by mom. She would buy the kekabu from the village folks who owned the tree, patiently separate the seeds and stuff the kekabu into the pillow cases which she sewed using a Singer sewing machine (a marriage gift from my grandparents). To prevent the fibres from getting into her hair and nose, she wore a head scarf and hankerchief as face mask. It is important that the hands are not wet when handling the kekabu, otherwise it will stick all over the place which makes it difficult to manage. After the pillows had been stuffed, mom will handstitch to close up the small opening.

We never wash these pillows because it could not be washed. But we changed the pillow cases. Periodically, we would hang them out under the sun and beat them with a stick to remove any ticks and mites. The hot equatorial sun will kill all the germs with its solar power. It can last for many years, 10 years or more. If the cloth was too old and torn, we made a new cover and transferred the stuffing.

When I got married and started to have kids of my own, mom would go back to our village to search for the kekabu sellers to get enough stock to make a whole set of baby pillows, bolsters and a baby cot mattress for each of my kid. She said, the kekabu bed sets are cool to sleep on and if baby has a restful sleep, the adults will get a good rest too. During those times, I didn't really value her efforts much, so I dispose off the old pillows and mattresses when it got old. I replaced them with newer versions like polyester, foam, latex, feathers, microbeads, cotton or whatever that was new and popular. Somehow, all these materials could never take the place of the kekabu pillows that mom used to make.

Now I live to regret my actions and wish that I hadn't thrown them away. The only consolation is that my boy had the last set. He is very fond of it and will never leave home without it. I'll make sure this set will be preserved for as long as possible.

The kekabu industry is a home cottage industry in Malaysia. There are still people making kekabu bed sets by hand and selling it for an income to support their families. I think this is an example of how we can live in harmony with nature. They don't cut the trees, but only harvest the fibres from the pods. The trees help to support a family. The fibres which would otherwise be blown off and wasted are used to make bedding materials that lasts a lifetime with beautiful memories to add on.

My post today is dedicated to Euroangel, a Filipino Expat in Europe of My Euro Travel and Adventure blog. Thank you for being the first commenter of my previous post on the King's Crown. Her blog is about travel in Europe.


Finally, I'd like to wish everyone,

"Happy Mother's Day!"

Post Publication Update:

After searching for some time, finally I am so happy to have found this gutsy lady from Ipoh who sews and sells the Kekabu bedding sets for a living. She works hard for the money and depends on this meagre income to support her children through secondary school and university. I bought 2 pillows with purple covers from her. If you wish to buy kekabu pillows, etc. please email me for her contact details. To protect their privacy, I am not publishing their personal details here.  


  1. Happy Mothers' Day Autumn Belle, if not because of you i forgot all about it.

    That is almost the same as my experience with the kapok pillow, we have the same practice here, but of course we have Malay origins. It is good you dont have allergies because it will be very bad. In the University of the Philippines in Los Banos there are 3 big kapok trees which shed the fibers every March-April, in time for graduation. Whenever the fibers fly and reach the grounds, the students call them UPLB snow, and it is nice to see. However, those with allergic asthma had very difficult time. We call it "buboy" in Tagalog.

  2. This is a wonderful mother's day story. I'm glad you took the time to write it and share it with us.

  3. Wow, what a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing your memories. Now when I hear about a kapok tree I will think of the nice pillows and bedding made from the fibers.

    Happy Mother's Day to you.


  4. Yay Autumn..what a fabulous spotlight on my fave topic..trees!! A super beautiful story..lovely post..magical!

  5. I loved this post <3 What a wonderful tree!

  6. Wonderful story! They were once used here to stuff pillows and mattresses as well, plus sofas and life preservers. I have a floss-silk tree in my garden. It is my favorite tree! I love the giant pink flowers!

  7. Nearly can't find your comment section here, Autumn Belle. Nonetheless, it's very creative of you to rename it.
    Wow, how I wish I had such a childhood life. This tree is very "green" indeed. Have been trying to look for full cotton pillow and bolster everywhere, but everytime, the price put me OFF!
    With this tree, it enables DIY very easily.
    Autumn Belle, do you have sources for it? When I need some, do you think you could help supply / refer to the supply?
    Thanks. Great post indeed !

  8. It's easy to recognise kapok trees and I seldom fail to point them out to the folks when we're travelling north to Taiping. Great pics of the kapok pod and a lpvely story too.

  9. When I saw the name of this tree I immediately thought of stuffing. We used to buy bags of white fluffy stuff called Kapok - what a shock when I kept reading your post to see that it really was the same kind of thing. I loved the kapok it was ever ever so soft - nothing could compare with that stuff - it was so tactile.

    I'm glad you have one set of bedding that keeps those memories alive for you. We don't really appreciate some things do we until we are much older and wiser......... I know that I have learnt that lesson too.

    Happy Mother's Day AutumnBelle.

  10. I remember this tree back in the Philippines because our neighbor have it. sometimes we gather the kapok for making pillows...we also call it Kapok in our dialect.

    thanks for sharing this nice story Autumn Belle..i wish you too a happy Mother's Day in advance. You are blessed to be a Mother..

    thanks also for mentioning my Euro honor indeed..
    God bless!

  11. What a lovely post and wonderful tradition to pass down a family.

    Something that enables peaceful sleep is a precious gift in itself.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  12. Your Kapok post brought back memories of my younger days. Our pillows too were stuffed with kapok fibers and pillow fights made a lot of mess.

    It was my dear grandma who made our pillows back then.

  13. Thanks for the info :) It's difficult to find it nowadays so what my mum did was to take out (every now and then) the kapok filling ( we call it kekabu) and put it under the sun. Then she will make new sets of pillows with that kapok. My mom still keeps the pillow sewn by her mother and I still keep my pillow (and bantal busuk) sewn by my mom using the kapok filling :) Nothing can beat the comfort of it!! It lasts for generations!

  14. Very heartwarming story, thanks for sharing it with us. Beautiful tree shots.

  15. The Kapok trees nearby are having hundreds of seed pods right now. If you observe properly, there is one type of bug which follows this tree. It is orange in colour.

  16. Nice story of the kapok tree & and it value to the kampung folks and not forgetting the sweet *smelly* pillow story of yours haha..tQ

    "Happy Mother's Day"

  17. Hi, everyone!

    Thank you very much for the visits and encouraging comments. I am pleasant surprised to find that the 'floss-silk' fibres (as Floridagirl puts it) is also used in as faraway as the USA! I have never imagined this. Rosie, I am so surprised you can relate to this kapok too.

    KL Vegetable Garden, please write an email to mynicegardenblog at so that I can give you the kekabu seller contact details. I have also updated my post.

  18. What an interesting tree. By the look of the first picture of the tree, I thought it was white flowers hanging upside down. It's amazing what nature gives us. Aside from cotton plants, now I learn about a cotton tree.

    Have a wonderful Mother's Day!

  19. I really appreciate the story of the kapok tree and the pillows made from its stuffing. Man-made fibers are rarely as good as natural ones! There is a kapok tree growing in the conservatory at Birmingham's Botanical Gardens. When I was a docent there, I would tell school children the story of the kapok tree. But now I read your personal story, and it puts it all in a new perspective!

  20. Wonderful tree with useful seed pods! The fibres are nice to touch. Have a great weekend!

  21. Great article of yours to the New Straits Times today. When to the local groceries store to get a copy of it. Interesting post of the cotton tree. Those were the days. Reminds me of the the times when we traveled back to visit grandma. There were so many of them along the way in the old highway at the country side. Awwww... those soft soft pillows she made for us.

    Going to me mother's day tomorrow. Miss you mum. Happy Mother's Day. Love you. :-)

  22. my son had the same experience with teh pillow....

    it was a good time in his life too

  23. This is fascinating post, Autumn Belle. The tree itself is remarkable, and unlike anything I'm familiar with in our cold climate here in Canberra, but I also love your story. Thank you for sharing it with us and happy Mothers Day!

  24. Hi Autumn Belle,

    My mom used to make similar pillows for all 6 of us when we were kids. We still use those pillows back in my hometown. It's very true that the pillows are cooler than those polyester ones that I use here.

    I have not seen a kapok tree before. During our drive to Sekinchan, we saw many kekabu pillows being sold by vendors on the street side. I am keen to find out the contact for the kekabu pillow seller's contact details. Will email you. Thanks for bringing the nostalgia of yesteryears back to me!

  25. What a fascinating post about this special tree. We can grow it's relative, the Floss Silk tree which is very interesting as well. I love your story about your mother and how she patiently made you and your children those special pillows.

  26. Beautiful story.

  27. What a touching story. I can still remember during my childhood moments that all the beds are made from this tree material. Only later did the newer foam material was introduced.

    Then sleepin with a foam matress was never the same compared to this one.

  28. Happy Mother's Day! Intersting story and info on the Kapok tree. In the earlier days, we too used such pillow's n mattresses, n Traditional quilt, here, but now have switched to foam pillows n mattressses for ready availablity n convenience.Thx for sharing. Cheers! Radhika

  29. we also have kapok tree back home and yes it's used for pillows there

    and belated mother's day greetings too

  30. Hi again Autumn..admiring your post again ..gorgeous..and happy Mother's day!! and just wanted to pop in and say thankyou for your super lovely comments. Much appreciated!! Have a super lovely day full of magic!

  31. What an absolutely fascinating post! As I was reading about the tree, I was going to ask your verdict - like or dislike? It looks like it could be a real mess to deal with!

    Your story is really interesting. So does the stuffing smell bad or is it OK after it's had a chance to air out and be turned into stuffing?

    I'm glad you found someone who still makes pillows out of this stuff. The thing in the background that looks like a mattress topper or something looks really comfortable.

  32. this is a wonderful stuff, thanks for sharing your memories.

  33. Hi, everyone! Thank you very much for the visit and Mother's Day wishes. Your kindness is much appreciated. I had a great Mother's Day. My children gave me a lovely card and My Dear brought me out for a nice Japanese dinner. I had my fave shashimi which is oishi-desu-nei!

    Kiki, special thanks to your double presence which was doubly magical!

    Wendy, I like this tree. Seeing it again evoke a lot of fond memories of my childhood. My grandma was the first person who showed me what a kapok tree was and where the silk cotton fibres came from. The pillow does not smell bad. To the contrary, we love the 'smelly pillow' because as time goes by, this pillow would absorbed our kiddy smell, our happy hugs & kisses and also our sad tears and sorrows. It is our trusted companioun, just like the teddy bear or a fave soft toy.

    The thing in the background that looks like a comforter is actually a hand quilted mattress which can expand and fit into a single bed. This item is made to order.

  34. AutumnBelle I remember reading this when you posted it. So much enjoyed what you wrote about your mother and 2 generations of baby pilllows.

  35. What an interesting and educative post, Autumn Belle, bringing sweet memories of yesteryears of kapok-filled mattresses, pillows and bolsters that were sooooo lovely and difficult to part with, even when the familiar 'smell' became a little nauseatic..haha!
    Thanks for sharing those lovely photos of the Kapok tree...believe it, I've never seen one before, being an urbanite all my life!

  36. I discovered my 1st buboy pillow while visiting in Philippines and staying at a hotel. I fell in love with the firmness. It doesn't compress as you sleep. I had my wife, who has family in Philippines, order some to be made and shipped to me here in the states. It is my personal sleep pillow. After reading your article I have to consider some other bedding options. I've never seen the tree but I will be certain to see one on my next visit.

  37. Diana, Jacqueline. Thank you very much for the nice words.

    Kam, you are right about the pillow. Philippines is a big exported of the kapok fibres. As I know there is a company in Canada marketing this pillow, calling it Ceiba pillows which are washable. You can google it.

  38. I know its been a few years but I only came to know about such tree in kuching and the pillows made from such wonderful fiber.
    Where shall I get such cotton to make my own pillows?
    Please do enlighten me.

    1. It is known as kekabu (malay) here. The material is only available in smaller towns where there are smallholders who grow the trees and harvest the cotton for sale. Alternatively, you can google for online sellers.


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