Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham
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Brazilian Floss Silk tree
This article was published in Scene Magazine May 2004
Autumn colour for our climate can be an interesting mix of traditional deciduous trees like Liquidamber and subtropical flowering trees and shrubs like Tibouchina with their sometimes startlingly bright displays in Autumn and Winter.
The Brazilian Floss Silk tree has to be one of the most startling of all. Until recently it was known as Chorisia speciosa and now its called Ceiba speciosa. And not to be confused with the common silk tree, Albizzia julibrissin, that grows everywhere in our city as a street tree. The floss silk tree's flowers are spectacular, waxy pink, five-inch blooms, massed on bare branches from February to May.
It often takes ten years before it gets up the gumption to do it at all, then it only flowers when it feels like it, which is usually after a longish dry spell. And even then it may only flower on some parts of the tree. But when it does, its always worth the wait. As if this arrangement wasn't weird enough, it also has a memorably spiky fat trunk.
The thorns completely cover the greenish bark like big rose thorns. Not nice to back into when you're mowing the lawn! But they only grow on the lower couple of metres of the tree. Above that the branches are smooth and green. On more than one occasion I have been tempted to leave especially obnoxious small boys up in the branches to make their own way home.
I promise I only thought it.
Apart from the Autumn flowering time, the floss silk tree is evergreen and very fast-growing to at least 6m and often more than 10m tall. It tends to have a clear trunk, apart from the spikes, to at least 2 metres and the branches are usually almost horizontal like its close relative, the Kapok tree which was once widely grown in the tropics for the fluffy white fibre in the seed pods, used in mattresses and pillows until synthetics replaced it.
The floss silk tree was also used as a kapok substitute in Brazil but doesn't set seed pods in NZ for some reason and its just as well, because the drifts of white floss from the bursting ripe pods, which are like half-sized footballs, would be a serious nuisance.
While they are frost-tender when young, they become tougher with age and can withstand our light Northland frosts. And for those of us who like to climb trees, the thorns can be knocked off the trunks and won't re-grow. Right now a 20 year-old floss silk tree is flowering in Tikipunga's Paramount Drive directly opposite the entrance to Countdown supermarket and another younger specimen in Fairway Drive, Kamo.
The worryingly marijuana-shaped leaves of the floss silk tree can give rise to occasional excitement and consternation. Rural friends of mine once had the drug-squad helicopter land on their lawn to catch them red-handed after their substantial floss silk tree was mis-identified from the air to the astonishment of all involved. And years ago a couple of teenage lads who wouldn't otherwise have set foot in a nursery, once bought lushly-foliaged metre high specimens to use as houseplants to impress their mates and terrorise their poor mothers. I still wonder how that went for them. And whether anyone smoked the leaves.
These interesting subtropical beauties are one of those Autumn trees that the rellies down South can't grow but in a good year here they make a spectacle to rival the liquidambers.
And I bet there'll always be someone who believes they're the biggest marijuana trees in the world.
(Copyright Russell Fransham 2004)
(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2004)