Pokok Kekabu Among the more dramatic trees in the settled landscapes of Malaysia is the Kekabu or Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra), a gargantuan tropical version of the common large-for-Michigan Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) of my youth. A truly massive tree, it grows to easily 100 feet high, with thick strong lateral branches radiating out in whorls at nearly 90 degrees from the trunk. The most striking feature is at ground level: the muscular buttress roots that rise 8, 9, 10 feet out of the ground to join the main trunk, giving the tree the appearance of a rocket ready for take off. A tree of such stature cannot be planted just anywhere – the roots could easily buckle pavement or crack a foundation – but at the edge of a parade ground or athletic field it is a perfect choice. The specimen in the photos is growing at the side of Kuching’s historic Independence Field (Padang Merdeka) where it dwarfs even the Rain Trees (Samanea saman).
Pokok Kekabu
Beyond its impressive landscape qualities, the tree was for a long time an economically important plant. Like the cottonwood tree back home, it produces pods holding great quantities of seeds inside with a cottony fibre for wind dispersal. One summer the cottonwood trees in Detroit had a flag year and the grassy floodplain across from my house was dusted white like a half-inch of snow. Fleetingly beautiful, but useless. The kekabu Kekabu Tree by comparison can produce kilos of cotton every year. That cotton is thick, soft and waxy, and for a long time was bought and sold commercially for furniture cushions and pillows, before being replaced by foam products. Nowadays it is hard to find in West Malaysia, and quite expensive: RM18/kilo or more. Here in Sarawak though, it is still readily available and affordable. My wife was feeling domestic in the days leading up to the birth and decided to make pillows. I was able to pick up several packages of 2nd grade kekabu for RM7.50/kilo, or about a dollar a pound. “Tok ada jahat sikit“, said the old man: “it’s a bit wicked” meaning that it needed a bit of cleaning before it could be used. Sure enough, the cotton had some seeds and twigs inside, but sorting through it was exactly the kind of meditative finger-work my wife was looking for to prepare for the baby to come. She stuffed 8 pillows all in all (careful not to stitch them up completely – pantang you know) before AbangChu made his appearance, just the perfect thing for 40 days of bedrest.

Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton.  Jahat sikit, but usable.
Sarawak Kekabu, or silk-cotton. Jahat sikit, but usable.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. Masya-Allah good post. This is a favourite tree. Whenever we are back at kampung in Kuala Kangsar, my wife, being from the urban, is always excited to see the kekabu trees in ‘blooms’!

    In Kuala Kangsar, it is pretty abundant and cheap especially if you go to the kampung folks. A baby set of 2 pilows, two bolsters, and a bedding, all with covers and stitched with floral decoration (sulam benang emas) costs RM99. They last for ages.

    And, masya-Allah masih stick to those pantang larang? I only obey when ma-in-law is around, teehee.

  2. Heh, my MIL has a long reach. She had finished them completely until she received a lecture over the phone – then it was back to the pillows to pull out some stitches. I don’t mind indulging that sort of thing. Alam ghaib, mana tau? Allah holds the power but we don’t know all the systems He has set in place…

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