So, on our first day back on the island, Lisa and I noticed that wisps of cotton were blowing around everywhere. It reminded us of the blowing seeds of Texas cottonwood trees, though we had never seen a cottonwood tree on Cozumel. After talking to some locals we were told that this stuff was from the Ceiba (pronounced SAYba) tree (also known as the Kapok tree). These white stringy fibers were flying everywhere and were quite annoying. They were sticking to your clothes, adhering to your window screens and falling into your food and drinks. Ugh, the Ceiba breeding season was definitely happening. We made some comments to each other and headed to the beach. We didn’t really think about the tree itself or what it looked like. We ventured over to Playa Azul and when we pulled in, right there in the middle of the circular driveway was “obviously” a huge Ceiba tree. Hanging from the long gangly limbs were these pods of white filament and it was flying in all directions. This was in contrast to three weeks prior when we were at Playa Azul. At that time the Ceiba tree (which we did not know the name) had large green dangling fruit drooping from its limbs. I thought they looked like elongated avocados, Lisa made a joke that they looked like pelotas (balls) because they seemed to be in pairs and just hanging there. The funny thing is that avocado comes from the Nahuatl word “ahuacatl” which means testicle, so I guess our observations were both right. We wowed at the difference that had occurred in the tree since we had left and then headed to the playa. Later that night while having a couple of margaritas we mentioned the Ceiba tree to our bartender. Ivan said “oh yeah those trees are sacred to the Maya people”. “It is basically illegal to cut one down and it would bring very bad luck.” Our curiosity got the best of us, we had to find out more.
After some research we found that the Maya claim that the Ceiba tree connects the Underworld (Xibalba) to the terrestrial world. Ceiba trees are a common site at many cemeteries. It is believed that when the fruit opens up and the wind carries its white threads, that the souls of the dead are able to leave the ground and touch the sky. Maya gods also live in the Ceiba trees as well as supernatural creatures such as the Alux. It is for these reasons that they are exalted.
The Ceiba tree has been given the moniker the Tree of Life. In addition to assisting in raising the souls of the dead, it is a tree that provides so much ecologically. The bark of the tree has been used by Maya shaman as medicine for headaches, diuretics and as an aphrodisiac. The seed can be pressed to make a vegetable oil. The cottony fibers were highly prized in Mayan times and used in the making of clothing. The fibers are also very buoyant and water resistant. Up until the advent of synthetic foam, almost all life preservers were filled with the kapok of the Ceiba tree. This filling is used as an eco friendly replacement for down in pillows, mattresses, blankets and furniture. Ceiba trees can grow up to 250 feet tall and have a huge canopy. This canopy provides protection for tree dwellers such as monkeys, iguanas, tree frogs, coati, tlacuaches (possums) mapache (raccoons) and a vast variety of birds (some of which make nests in the seed pods). The flowers of the Ceiba provide pollen for bees but the Ceiba trees themselves are pollinated by bats.
So, there you have it. The next time you see all of that cotton blowing around you will have a little “food for thought” from the Tree of Life.