It still feels like summer, but the autumn airs are already invading our streets. The plants know it. Soon, it will be time to paint themselves in shades of brown, red, and yellow, a spectacle imposed by the cooling of the days, reduced light, and the suppression of chlorophyll – the pigment that gives green tones. Then, rhythmed by the wind, the foliage will mix on the ground. But those who reduce plant operations to preparations for winter rest are mistaken. This is also the case with the silk floss tree.
Ceiba speciosa blooms when everything seems to want to fall asleep. As soon as summer ends, from this tree, native to the region that now corresponds to Brazil and Argentina, blossoms bell-shaped flowers of intense pink bloom.
As they fall, with the grace of a silent dance, each five-petaled flower will form lush floral carpets. This phenomenon occurring in October is another sign of the agreement made by the city’s trees so that their blossoms do not compete for our attention.
In Portugal, it is said that the silk floss tree is the tree of memory because the flower appears during the Brazilian spring. In reality, its good memory is not in that fact. It may not know its own whereabouts, but it certainly knows the seasons and where it came from, flowering here in the autumn, just as it would in Brazil, with only a difference in months – there, it would be between March and June.
Who brought the silk floss tree to Europe?
Spring and autumn are seasons with much in common. If this statement seems strange, it is important to note that autumn, at its core, is a second spring, which gardeners have learned to accept.
In the play by the writer and philosopher Albert Camus, Le Malentendu, the phrase “autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower” still echoes. It is something theatrical and poetic that is also true because both seasons are transitional, filled with visual stimuli, colour, smells, and somewhat mild temperatures.
Ah, and both are suitable for new and fertile plantations.
To Europe, it seems that the silk floss tree arrived through Brazilian seeds and French hands in the first half of the 19th century. As far as written records allow us to go back, it is thought to have been first introduced on the Mediterranean coast of France, in the city of Nice.
It would be expected that it had been introduced in some Portuguese garden, given its origin, but there are no reliable records of this. We should not be too surprised, after all, it was “discovered” and described firsthand by the French botanist Auguste François de Saint-Hilarie in the 1820s. Later, in 1824, he published Plantes usuelles des Brasiliens: ouvrage dédié a S. M. l’Empereur du Bresil, the first document that mentions the tree and names it Chorisia speciosa.
The rest of the tree’s journey is reconstructed based on scarce documents and logical deductions that connect the existing dots. However, as is usual with trees from former colonies, the role of the Portuguese is central to spreading the tropicality of the New World.
For example, in 1877, it is known that Paris received seeds of this species from a tree in the Botanical Garden of Coimbra, an annual tradition among gardens that ensures the diversity and conservation of species.
In our old continent, the silk floss tree only began to bloom at the end of the 19th century. It is true that we should not encourage botanical intrigues between countries, but we were the first to describe the tree’s flowering in Europe, specifically in the Botanical Garden of Lisbon, documented in a text dating back to 1888.
Reports of flowering followed chronologically in Spain (1893), Italy (1894), and finally, with irony, France (1913), the first country to welcome it. If it truly bloomed here for the first time, it is due to a land and climate famous for embracing exotic trees with the same enthusiasm with which we brought them.
The tree of hummingbirds
In Latin America, the silk floss tree is often referred to as the tree of birds, with hummingbirds being one of its pollinators. In fact, it is also for butterflies and other frequent visitors that do not dispense with its flowers.
In the first decades of life, despite the beauty that attracts, only those who can fly can enjoy it and touch it. This is due to the thorns that cover the fragile trunk, providing protection against natural elements, especially primates.
In the fruits that ensure the plant’s offspring, these animals know the seeds as a delicacy.
Inside the fruit, there is also kapok – where the name “silk floss tree” comes from – the white fibres that we associate with cotton and give it the name. The lightness of the material drives a short and cushioned dispersion of the seeds.
For many Brazilian communities, even today, kapok is used for filling pillows, mattresses, sofas, and even clothing. If left on the ground, the blanket of flowers gives way to a vegetal snowfall, given the density of silk floss trees and their kapok.
It is in this tearing wood that the passing of the years is marked by voluptuous transformations.
Two decades later, it slowly sheds the thorns, from the base to the branches that support the canopy. Perhaps a sign of security, given by age, that its body and lineage will endure.
The green trunk tends, over time, to take on an increasingly grey hue, revealing a robust trunk, which some see as a belly. This is why it is nicknamed “palo borracho” in Argentina, which roughly translates to “drunken stick.”
Interestingly, the trunk of the silk floss tree, even with age, has green filaments that also photosynthesize. For this reason, even during winter, it continues to draw energy from the sun without needing leaves, unlike many other deciduous trees that have no choice but to conserve energy.
It is spread throughout Lisbon but remains a kind of rare gem in the city’s gardens, with only 93 specimens in 21 gardens, a considerably lower number compared to other exotic species.
In the book guide Árvores na Cidade, by Graça Saraiva and Ana Ferreira de Almeida, you can find this species highlighted in two routes: “with a view of the Tejo,” near the Jerónimos Monastery; in the “hills of romantic Lisbon,” in the Príncipe Real garden and Praça da Alegria.
Without classification, but of no lesser importance, they can also be found in the garden of the Church of the Angels, at Parque Eduardo VII, Jardim Botânico da Ajuda, Jardim do Palácio de São Bento, Largo das Necessidades, among others.
After flowering and the subsequent “snowfall,” it will once again join the other plants, filling itself with leaves. Many seasons have passed, always without being able to hide an increasingly intoxicated belly.
*Originally published on October 19, 2022.
Nascido na Madeira, o seu coração ficou por Lisboa. Estudou comunicação na FCSH – UNL e fotografia no Cenjor. Depois de muitos ofícios, é a contar histórias que se sente bem. Acha que não existem histórias pequenas, anseiam é por ser bem contadas. Quando não está a escrever, é aprendiz de jardineiro. @leonismos no Twitter.
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