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I have this kinda funny (as in funky, not ha-ha) tree growing right smack in the middle of my front yard in Miami. It’s admittedly not a particularly cuddly or friendly looking bit of botany, its trunk prickling all over as it is with conical thorns. But for me it’s all about the mystique, being as it is a ceiba (English names include “kapok,” “silk cotton,” and “silk floss”). This is a genus of tropical tree I’ve come across constantly on my travels through Latin America and the Caribbean – and so might you (it’s the official tree of Puerto Rico and Guatemala, has a city in Honduras named after it, and found as far afield as Asia and Africa). The one in my yard is still practically a sapling, still skinny and maybe 20 or so feet (6 meters) tall. But ceibas can grow to be giants, with heights of more than 200 feet (61 meters) and dramatically gnarled trunk bases nearly as wide as small houses.
Ceibas play a central role in the lore of Mexico’s and Central America’s Mayan cultures – in fact, they are depicted in Mayan mythology as the “world tree,” linking the underworld, the terrestrial world, and the heavens (doesn’t get more central than that, right?), and you may come across representations of ceibas at Mayan archaeological sites and museums, especially in items like incense holders and burial urns. Wherever the ceiba grows, it seems, it has long cast a spell on the local peoples, providing them over the centuries not just with practical products like oils, stuffing for pillows and mattresses, and medicinal substances, but spiritual inspiration as well.
But it wasn’t so much in Mexico that I first became aware of the cultural impact of the ceiba, but in Cuba, at a landmark called El Templete (pictured above). It’s a small neoclassical temple-type structure, built in 1828 on Havana’s oldest square, the Plaza de Armas, which I learned marks the site of where a ceiba once stood – a legendary tree under which the Catholic mass was celebrated to mark the founding of San Cristóbal de la Habana in 1519. That long-gone original tree is represented by a marble column, but another large one grows out in front, and it’s venerated particularly by the followers of the afro-Cuban religion santería (the ceiba is also held sacred in West Africa, where this religion has its roots). It’s the focus of an annual tradition on November 16, the date of the city’s founding, in which Cubans of all ages and beliefs make three circles around the tree and throw throw down coins before it while making three wishes.