LA Good Questions: What Kind of Tree Is This?

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An AT:LA reader sent us this garden question about a strangely shaped tree:

Dear AT:LA,
My neighbor has this unusual tree overhanging onto my side yard, its trunk covered in sharps spikes, and its leafless branches precariously hanging large football shaped "fruits". When they fall, crack and open, they reveal a cotton-like filling and brown seeds. Do you have any idea what type of tree this is?

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It's funny you ask us about that tree, as we used to work in an office complex surrounded by these strange trees, and we'd often have to watch out heads at the lunch tables for falling fruit (mostly because wild parakeets flying around Van Nuys seemed to like the seeds).

The tree is known as a Kapok, Ceiba or Silk Cotton Tree (Ceiba pentandra), a tropical tree native to South America, Africa, and the East Indies. The silky-cotton filling, also known as Java cotton, is actually a quite useful material. Traditionally, it's been used for pillow stuffing, sleeping bag stuffing, life jacket stuffing, furniture upholstery, and insulation because of its moisture-resistant and quick-drying properties. The seed oil can even be used to make soap.

We'd be tempted to harvest those fruits and make our own homemade natural fiber pillow. But if you want to go the easy route, and are looking for a eco-friendly pillow, you can order a Kapok cotton pillow online for about $32. In the meantime, watch your head.

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