By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
The first phase of the $250 million Boynton Beach Town Square redevelopment project is underway. And by 2021, residents should be enjoying a cultural center in the renovated historic Boynton Beach High School, as well as a new fire station, City Hall with library, residential and retail spaces, hotel, playground, amphitheater, parking garage and open spaces.
But progress never seems to come without some losses: in this case, the planned removal of an 80-year-old kapok tree.
“That tree has served our town as a meeting place for clubs and school groups,” says Janet DeVries Naughton, archivist and webmaster for the Boynton Beach Historical Society.
“It has sheltered those picnicking and playing games under its massive branches. And it has greeted new families to town as it’s welcomed those returning from war or winter residences up North,” she adds.
As the square’s master plan indicates, the kapok near the historic Boynton Beach High School will be showcased in its own space, where it will continue to provide shade and a place to relax.
The removal of the other, smaller tree, at the corner of Ocean Avenue and First Street, was approved by the city to make way for apartments and a restaurant.
As a memorial to that departing giant, we’ve decided to delve into what makes the kapok or ceiba tree so special, no matter where it’s planted.
Joe Meisel, vice president of the Wisconsin-based Ceiba Foundation, works mostly with people in South America to protect threatened habitat, including the rainforest where kapok or ceiba (SAY-ba) trees thrive.
Meisel, with a touch of whimsy, likens the look of these trees to Buck Rogers’ spaceship. The buttress roots look like fins projecting partway up the trunk, which widens in the middle like a cigar.
These roots, which help support this massive tree, develop after the tree is about 30 years old and can reach 40 feet up the trunk, according to horticulturist Gene Joyner of West Palm Beach.
This kapok at Chase Bank on South Federal, one of the largest in Boynton Beach, shows the characteristic fissured bark and canopy that offer protection and food to a variety of birds.
In thick forest areas such as the rainforest, the trees can grow up to 250 feet high, with their umbrella-shaped canopies at the top of the trunks towering above the rest of the foliage. The trunk itself can grow to 90 feet in diameter.
In their native habitat, these trees have reached 800 years in age, and are revered by those of Mayan ancestry. They believe that the ceiba tree stood at the center of the universe connecting those of us on Earth to the spirit world, says Meisel.
In this country, the trees tend to be planted from seeds or seedlings. Joyner knows because he has a ceiba at his Unbelievable Acres Botanic Garden that he planted from a 3-gallon pot in the early 1980s.
“Over the years, I’ve given away many seedlings that have sprouted under the mother tree,” he says.
Joyner remembers when ceiba trees were quite common in Palm Beach County, with many nurseries selling their seeds or trees in pots. But because these trees require so much area to spread their roots and limbs, many were lost to developers who needed the space for building. Boynton Beach is fortunate that quite a few remain in the city, including the one that will continue to stand in Town Square.
Easy to grow and maintain, ceibas are often planted as specimen or novelty trees that grow quickly — up to 13 feet per year, according to the Rainforest Alliance website.
A deciduous tree, the ceiba blooms in white to pink flowers after its leaves fall. This is nature’s way of aiding the flowers’ pollination, done by wind and bats that like to sup on the tree’s sugar-laden blossoms, which open only at night.
The bats, reaching into the blossoms for sugary nectar, are covered in pollen that they transfer to other blooms on the same tree.
With time, these flowers are replaced by up to 4,000 fruits per tree, which become seed pods. Meisel describes them as looking like small footballs. As each pod ripens, it hardens and cracks open, exposing kapok — silk cotton that resembles cotton fiber with 200 dark seeds embedded in it.
The kapok is very light so that when the wind blows, it helps disperse the seeds. If the seeds land in water, they float long distances; the kapok can support 30 times its weight in water and loses only 10 percent of its buoyancy in 30 days, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica website.
These sculptural trees are not only beloved by humans but are important to the flora and fauna that call them home.
Epiphytes such as bromeliads find their way onto its limbs, creating homes for frogs, snakes and insects. Then birds flock to eat those insects.
“There are always birds in my kapok that offers protection from hawks and other predators. It gets pretty noisy depending on the time of year,” says Joyner.
Besides being important to nature, these trees are important to man, who has found many uses for them over the years.
Indigenous groups have long coveted the light wood of these trees to make canoes large enough to carry 40 people. And in the early 1900s, kapok was prized for stuffing toys, seat cushions, mattresses, pillows, saddles and life preservers.
In fact, the life preservers on the Titanic were likely stuffed with kapok, says Meisel.
But the popularity of kapok waned when synthetics came to market. And although today you can still purchase kapok bed pillows, the trees are more often sought for their wood, used to make things such as pulpwood, plywood and coffins.
With that in mind, we return to Boynton’s new Town Square — soon to be minus one of its amazing specimens. In memoriam, historian DeVries Naughton says, “As with many of the town’s old-timers who are no longer with us, that kapok tree will be missed and fondly remembered.”