“Kapok tree Honolulu”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kapok_tree_Honolulu.jpg#/media/File:Kapok_tree_Honolulu.jpg
Ceiba pentandra is more commonly called the kapok tree. It’s native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America, and west Africa. It’s also cultivated in southeast Asia for the cotton-like fiber that grows in its seed pods.
The fiber is light, resilient, waterproof, and floats easily, making it the ideal filling for life jackets. It’s also used as filling for pillows, cushions, and stuffed animals. Its main drawback is that it’s highly flammable. Natives in South America use it to wrap blowgun darts, because it creates a seal around the dart to help force it through the blowgun. Most of the commercially used kapok is grown in Java (“Java cotton” is another name for the fiber), the Philippines, and Malaysia. If you find the fiber content of a life jacket, it’ll normally tell you where the kapok comes from.
The seeds also produce oil similar to cottonseed oil. It’s edible and light, but gets rancid quickly. It does have some potential as a biofuel, so we might be seeing it used in that capacity before long.
The kapok tree is a sacred symbol in Mayan mythology. In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s said that Bazil, the demon of death, lives in the kapok tree, having been trapped there by a carpenter.
An interesting fact (well, to me, anyway): “Kapok” was the word that got me started on looking for words that began and ended with the same letter.