Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

The Power of Plants


By Donna Porter

Plants can stir your emotions – induce in you a feeling – if not by their unparalleled beauty, then by their majestic nature.  Have you ever been in the presence of a plant and felt just a little humbled?  Awed?  Even slightly intimidated?  Perhaps, somewhere in your life, you have come upon a tree, for example, where you almost felt the need to fall down on your hands and knees to praise its magnificence and grandeur. Trees possess this power and ability more than most plants. 

Ceiba pentandra
Ceiba pentandra

In the northern latitudes and temperate climates of the world there are the humungous Northern Redwoods, the massive Tulip Poplars, the strong and mighty Oaks and the supreme Maples and Beeches.  Whether you are overcome by its dramatically huge trunk diameter or its sky-bound height or its overall grandness, trees can make us humans feel like tiny serfs in their almighty kingdom.  Their inherent power and beauty inclines one to address them as “your majesty”. 

Here, in Costa Rica, in the land of phenomenal plant growth, there are numerous species of trees in the rainforest that can dwarf us not only physically, but in a mental state as well. In addition to their colossal trunk and limb size, the expansive and huge, fin-like buttressed roots of tropical trees increases their overall sense of supremacy.   

Ceiba pentandra (Giant Kapok, Silk-Cotton Tree/Ceiba in Spanish) is the tallest tree in the tropical rainforest, which can grow to astonishing heights of nearly 200 ft (60 meters) and equally astonishing widths of 12 ft (4 meters).  Its enormous limbs form an umbrella-shaped crown which are laden with epiphytes – like bromeliads and orchids – and provide a home for countless species of animals.  Birds feed and nest in their high perches, mammals use their enormous limbs as aerial freeways, frogs raise their tadpoles in the tiny pools of the bromeliads, and insects reach the peak of their diversity in the canopy of giant trees like the Ceiba (pronounced SAYba).  They can be easily spotted and identified by their wide and encompassing umbrella-shaped canopy atop a distinctly straight, light gray trunk that extends above the normal canopy.  A bulge or “pot-belly” in its lower trunk, its palmate-shaped leaves and its conical spines along its branches and on young trees, also makes it easy to recognize. 

Native to Central and South America, C. pentandra can be seen in Costa Rica from sea level to 1000 meters (3,000 ft), and from the northern Guanacaste regions to the Osa Peninsula in secondary and primary forest.  Its ease of seed dispersal and germination has made it a pioneer tree in many areas, emerging on deforested or disturbed land.

 The ancient Mayans of Central America believed that the world was flat and supported at each corner by a tree; in its axis stood the great Ceiba.  It was at the center of the earth, connecting the terrestrial world to the spirit-world.  In Mayan culture it is represented as a symbol for the underworld, which for the Mayans is more like our perception of a heaven.  The souls of the dead follow its roots into the underworld and ancestors return in the same way to visit the living.  Ceiba pentandra is the national tree of Guatemala, where many villages still have grand Ceibas in their main plaza, marking their homeland as the center of the world.  Due to its revered history, these majestic trees are regularly spared when forests are cut.  

Ceibas also have had a long commercial history.  During the 1940s the fluff, or kapok, that surrounds the seeds was harvested commercially for stuffing life preservers, seat cushions, mattresses and saddles. Being lighter than cotton and buoyant and resistant to saturation by water, it made an excellent filler for life preservers.  Until the middle of the 1900’s, nearly every stuffed life preserver and upholstered automobile seat was filled with kapok fibers.  (The fur-like kapok can be seen floating in the air here on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in Feb-April when trees are blooming; accumulating in every nook and cranny. Thankfully, it does not flower annually).  As modern materials became more favored, demand for kapok fluff has decreased.

Since the wood of Ceiba is soft and light, it is not suitable for furniture, but has been used commercially for pulpwood, pallets and plywood.   The low desirability of the wood has probably been the Ceiba’s saving grace and one reason these giant trees are still gracing the tropical  landscape. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, relic Ceiba pentandra trees are still being cut down for the production of pallets.  The ingenious indigenous people prized the Ceiba and traditionally constructed enormous dugout canoes out of the tree’s large, straight and cylindrical trunk.  

One very old and large Ceiba tree that visitors to Costa Rica can see is on the lake road between La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano) and Nuevo Arenal. It is located approximately 3.72 miles southeast of the town of Nuevo Arenal. This tree, which is noted by a sign on the road, has a height of 197 feet, is more than 500 years old and is the home of ferns, bromeliads and innumerable orchids.  Locally, you can see an enormous Ceiba specimen on the road going to Manuel Antonio Park, near the bridge by Villa Bosque. 

There are a few other species of Ceiba, including C. crispiflora (and its cultivars), C. pubiflora, C. schotti, C. speciosa and the Ceiba Kampong Series Hybrids that are prized in the horticultural trade.  These species are much smaller in height (to 50ft/15meters) with lovely, large, lily-type flowers (much more ornamental than C. pentandra) ranging from reddish-pink-white in color. These additional tropical species could grow here in Costa Rica in well drained soil. 

Promoting the preservation of old relic trees such as the Ceiba and introducing new ornamental species of Ceiba (as well as other tropical beauties) to the public and the nursery trade here in Costa Rica would be a priority at the future botanical garden – a place that will stir your emotions and tantalize all of your senses.


Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 8 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and was the first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area.   [email protected],  2777-5149