Legends of the Jungle – the Giant Ceiba Tree of Amazonia
By Andrew Kolasinski
Booming like an enormous bass drum, the sound reverberated through the jungle, coming up from the ground.
“It is a group of tourists at the next tree,” said our guide Fabriccio.
Our group had hiked from the trailhead where we left our canoe and had finally arrived at our goal, a giant Ceiba Tree.
“There is always a drumstick nearby,” he said and without further adieu picked up a thick branch and started to bang on the root buttresses of the huge tree.
The Ceiba (pronounced sayba) is remarkable for its great size, as well as for its significance to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador and elsewhere, and for the legends that surround it.
The tree may look familiar to film goers because the producers of the science fiction movie Avatar based the mystical “home tree’ on the Ceiba. In the film the Na’vi people worshiped the god that dwelt within the tree.
Ceiba pentandra is also known as the Kapok tree. Kapok, the fluff that protects its seeds was used (before plastics) as floatation in life preservers. Oils from the Ceiba are useful in many indigenous medicines including remedies for pain, infection, and as an aphrodisiac.
Other names for the Ceiba are Mapu tree and the silk-cotton tree and in Africa the Baobab tree. A native of the Americas, it has traveled the world. Because of the protective kapok, the seeds of the Ceiba float, which has allowed it to propagate throughout the tropical world. It grows in the Amazon, through South and Central America, tropical Mexico, the Caribbean, western Africa and Southeast Asia, and each region has its own legends surrounding the tree.
The Ceiba tree can live over 200 years. They can grow to 70 meters (230 feet) tall. Some specimens have been measured at four meters (13 feet) in diameter. At their roots they can be 40 feet across. Their root system extends up to one kilometer (328 feet) around them and their capillary action can pump over 1,000 liters a day from the jungle soil up to the canopy.
The roots begin far above the ground, an adaption to stay above flood waters. The roots are covered with flat bark skins, like the buttresses on a fortress. It is these bark triangles that can resound like a giant drum skin.
Looking up at the towering tree I could barely see its top branches. My guide Fabriccio, between banging on the root structure, explained, “These trees shelter the souls of the native Cofans people, but the shaman assured me this one is not occupied, so this is not an attack on the ancestors if we use it as a drum.”
Each tree is an individual. To the aboriginals of the Caribbean there was one particular Ceiba tree that was the home of the devil. To the Mayans a Ceiba tree was the gateway to the underworld as well as the heavens. Those souls destined for eternity among the gods would ascend by the Ceiba’s branches; those headed below would descend by the roots. Variations of this belief are found wherever the tree grows.
Another belief about Ceiba trees, based on careful observation, is that they are responsible for holding Amazonia together. With their extensive root systems Ceibas prevent the inevitable soil erosion that would otherwise wash away all of the dirt in the Amazon basin when the rainy season hits.
My Ceiba in the Ecuadorian jungle was not the biggest one and probably only 150 years old, but it was the tallest tree for miles around, and it was unmistakably a powerful individual, a force of nature, and just one of many that you can experience in the Amazon of Ecuador.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, specialists in adventure tours to Ecuador and throughout South America.
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