A Ceiba in Arizona

The Ceiba tree, otherwise known as the silk floss or the cotton floss tree is a remarkable, beautiful tree. It is considered the Maya Sacred Tree of Life, growing to be extremely tall and connecting the earth to the sky, holding earth and sky in their proper positions to one another.
The Ceiba tree is indigenous to Central America. There it grows rapidly reaching heights of 80 feet or more, and a diameter of five to eight feet across above its buttresses. Besides the spiny trunk, the tree also has characteristic seeds imbedded with a soft material known as “kapoc”.
Fifteen or more years ago I picked up a seed pod from a transplanted Ceiba tree growing in the Los Angles County Arboretum. I asked one of the arboretum docents about the tree. She knew very little but assured me that the tree would not grow in Arizona. It is very difficult to grow the Silk Floss tree outside it’s natural habitat in the best of circumstances. It needs the humidity and the heat of the tropical rain forests. I could never grow a Ceiba in Arizona, and not from a seed.
Undaunted I carried my seed pod home to Tempe where I broke it open and studied the hard black seeds encased in strands of kapoc floss.
I decided to sprout the seeds in a glass jar. I filled it with kapoc-wrapped seeds soaked in warm water and put the lid on tight. Then I kept the jar warm and waited, and waited, and waited.
One day I saw that several of the seeds had sprouted, a small green stem had broken through the hard covering of the seed and was reaching up toward the light.
I planted the seeds and soon had several tiny Ceiba sprouts growing inside the house. It was no problem keeping them warm, but I had to work to keep them humid. When we left town for a few days or weeks I put my Ceiba pots in the bathtub filled with several inches of water and closed the sliding glass door. The window above the tub brought in indirect light and my tiny trees thrived. They thought for sure they were in the warm tropical jungle.
What did they know, they started life in a glass jar!
However, when we came home the Ceiba trees had to move out of the bathroom.
Eventually all the little sprouts died except one. That one grew and grew until it was maybe twelve inches high, and it put out a little sucker on the side–a little bonus tree. Over the years I watched my little ceiba. Unlike its Central American cousins it was not a fast grower. Every year it added an inch or two. After about five years it began to grow the conical spines on its trunk characteristic of larger trees.
Then we moved south and my ceiba suffered. It did not do well with the move–wait that’s an understatement. One day it just dropped all its leaves and died. But the sucker hung on. There must have still been life in the roots because the little sucker began to grow and within a few years I had a tree that was maybe eight feet tall.
The winters were hard on it. Several winters the ceiba dropped all its leaves, but then came back in the spring.
This year we had a hard frost in March well after I thought my tree was safe outside. (It was getting a little big to move in and out every year.) I was afraid that maybe I had lost it for good this time. But now the bottom four feet have put out bright new green leaves and the green in the trunk is beginning to spread up into the part I was sure was completely dead and was just about to snap off.
Maybe the docent would eye my little ceiba with scorn and nod her head. “Nope, you can’t grow a ceiba in Arizona.” But I think we are doing very well thank you. We’ve been through a lot together and we’re both still here!
I am convinced of one thing–patience is required for most worthwhile things in life and if we give up too soon, decide there is no hope, no coming back to life, we will never see the miracle of life nor will we sit under the shade of our tree. I have a ways to go and so does my little tree. But its roots are stronger than ever and all we have ahead of us is time.

About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States" in Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, and a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico. Karen and her husband traveled extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, spending many summers in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala . Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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