03-08-2021 by Leni Frau
Rhodognaphalon Schumannianum or East African Bombax or Wild Kapok, is an indigenous species of flowering plant in the Malvaceae family found in the coastal strip of East Africa, from south-eastern Kenya through the forests of Tanzania to northern Mozambique and Malawi.
Msufi, as it is called in Swahili, is a deciduous plant, i.e. its leaves fall off during the unfavourable season. It has a medium-sized crown and can grow up to 50 metres in height. Its straight, cylindrical trunk can be devoid of branches up to more than half its height, and is characterised by a smooth, grey-green bark, unlike the Bombax Ceiba, with a diameter of more than a metre. Another peculiarity of this plant, especially the older specimens, are its basal buttresses, these strange protrusions in the lower part of the trunk that form the connection between the trunk and the large roots, which make it almost deformed.
The tree blossoms before the rains start; depending on the species, the flowers may be red, pink, white or yellow, solitary or in "clusters". Their scent is not exceptional and is bound to attract the bats that pollinate them. The fruits of this plant are very unusual: they are woody capsules, about 15cm long, green when unripe and brown when ripe, containing seeds the size of peppercorns, surrounded and protected by a woolly mass of fibre, made up of lignin and cellulose, known as "vegetable wool", which emerges from the long pod when it opens.
Kapok fibre is considered very valuable because it is totally organic, growing wild in nature. The filaments that cover the seeds are used to stuff mattresses, cushions and sofas and, because it floats and is water resistant, it is also used for flotation devices. It is a silky substance similar to cotton but being very weak it cannot be spun. It is considered the lightest natural fibre in the world.
The timber is mainly used in the production of plywood, but also to make boxes and crates or for light carpentry; traditionally, whole logs were hollowed out as canoes. It is not a good fuel wood because it only burns, but it can be used to fumigate huts or clothes. Wood ash is used as table salt and to make soap. The bark is used to build hut walls and doors and produces a reddish-brown gum and dye, while the inner bark produces a fibre that is used to make rope.
There are several medicinal uses for the plant: the roots are used to treat asthma and coughs, the bark is a traditional medicine used to treat diarrhoea and malaria, the fibre is used to clean wounds and the oil from the seeds is rubbed in to treat rheumatism and applied to heal wounds.
It is an incredibly useful but often underused tree, except by village elders who, considering it sacred, still choose it as the tree under which they gather to make important decisions.
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