This is the Silk Floss Tree. Sounds cuddly, right? But as you can see from the photos it's REALLY not. It's actually a tree huggers worst nightmare.
But it does have its good points, along with what you can clearly see are its bad points.
Originally from South America, there are a few trees planted here and there across the Algarve. However, you don't usually notice them. They just sort of, provided you don't lean on them by mistake, fly under the radar and blend into the rest. That is of course, until now - when they steal the show.
In the early autumn (around September/October) like other deciduous trees, they do indeed start to slowly let their leaves ‘fall’ to the ground.
However, they also take this opportunity to simultaneously KA-BLOOM, and explode into beautiful star shaped, pink and white flowers. All the leaves eventually fall to the ground, and the whole thing is left looking bright pink. It's then that you simply can't miss them. (The one that first made itself abundantly clear to me can be found on the road out of Estoi towards Moncarapacho. If you feel like having a look.) The flowers then start to fall to the floor and the tree spends the winter completely bare (except for the fruit capsules - more on them later) and sinks back into obscurity once again. Although, you still might notice some more unusual things if you pay closer attention. Along with those terrible spikes, another strange thing about the Silk Floss is that the younger ones bottle neck shaped trunks and branches are green. This is due to a high chlorophyll content which allows them to do the quite unusual trick of performing photosynthesis - without any leaves. Although, when they get older they start to lose this ability, and like all of us, they start to turn grey.
So, they are quite beautiful, but what's with those vicious spikes? They clearly don't want anybody to touch them. Why is that? Well, being native to tropical forests in South America the trees got fed up with monkeys climbing all over them. Good strategy I'd say. I mean, even us evolved monkeys only have to touch them once to learn our lesson.
The thorns are also said to be a sort of drip irrigation system. Dew collects on the spikes and then condenses, and little droplets of water drip onto the ground near the tree. This can be a real lifesaver in times of drought, and helps to see them through the long hot summers.
But why on earth would somebody call a tree this anti-social, and let’s face it downright prickly, something as cute and cuddly as a Silk Floss?
I did wonder. It's to do with the fruit it produces. It makes these quite large (inedible) avocado shaped capsules that contain lots of black seeds, but that's also surrounded by a fluffy matter, similar to cotton, that can be used to stuff pillows. And also, due to its hydrophobic (that's a new one for me too. I had to look it up. It means ability to repel water, or more literally, fear of water) properties, it's also used in the material that goes into life preservers.
In fact, the tree is pretty hydrophobic all round, and the water resistant bark was used by South Americans to build canoes (again, pretty ironic due to its phobia of water). Luckily though, not so much anymore, as there's not too many Silk Flosses around, and there’s better material for canoe building these days, much to the tree's relief.
If you are brave enough to plant one of these beautiful beasts in your garden, then, so there's no confusion in the garden centre, I should tell you that it can also be called the ‘Kapok tree’, and their botanical name is ‘Ceiba speciosa’. They grow fast to start with and then slow down as they mature (don't we all?). They like well drained, moist and fertile soil, but be careful where you plant them as they can grow up to 15 metres tall. This means they can provide ample shade in the summer, but maybe keep them at a distance - you don't want to bump into them too often.