You only really find these in the tropics and this was the first one I had seen – or rather the first one I’d had pointed out to me.
This was in the far north of Western Australia, not far from Wyndham, but it is usually found on rocky slopes and vine thicket gullies (around Townsville and further north into the Northern Territory)), the Kapok loses all its leaves before flowering, which makes the flowering more obvious. The flowers are edible raw and are quite pleasant. They are mucilaginous (if you’ll excuse the language!!) and slimy to chew on and are often compared to Marshmallow. Although more than 90% water, they are surprisingly high in Vitamin C! The tap root of young plants is also edible when roasted and has moderate levels of most nutrients. The same is true of the Northern Territory species, whose root is also pounded and used extensively as medicine for sores.
After the yellow flowers are pollinated, large, globular, green, papery fruit develop, which eventually turn brown and split along the seams to release their seed. The small black seeds are woven in a dense mat of fine silky hairs. This material is known as ‘kapok’ and was apparently used to stuff life preservers during the Second World War, although confusion exists as to whether the native or exotic species was used.
Kapok has also been used as stuffing in pillows, although extreme care should be taken if you smoke in bed. The Kapok fibres are highly flammable and almost explode in flame if a lit match is applied. For this reason, it is apparently good tinder to use when starting fires by friction with two sticks.