Tree of SpiritsJune 11, 2020 11:08 am
Our farms feature not only sugar cane but are home to a marvelous array of mature and fruit trees like mango, paw paw (papaya) and almond trees amongst others. We don’t cut them down on purpose, but preserve them for their ecological and aesthetic value.
One very special type of tree that lives on a few of our farms – with one especially impressive specimen found on our Old Bacolet farm – is the mythical Silk Cotton tree. Also known as kapok or Ceiba pentandra (called ‘Sayba’), the silk cotton originates in Asia, West Africa and our very own circum-Caribbean region. The fruits of the tree develop into a cotton-like white fluff, which can be used to stuff pillows and blankets, hence the name ‘silk cotton’ or ‘kapok’.
One of the largest tropical trees around in the jungle, the silk cotton can develop ginormous root systems – the buttress roots extend 40 to 50 feet up the trunk, as much as 65 feet out and continue underground to as long as 165 feet. The thorny trunk sports a massive diameter of 9 to 10 feet. Topped off by a crown of foliage as wide as 201 feet, which penetrates and overshadows the forest canopy. It takes around a century for a tree to reach its maximum height – the tallest tree has been recorded at 252ft. Truly majestic and awe inspiring for other reasons too…
Folklore of the Silk Cotton trees
In West Indian folklore the Silk Cotton tree has played a mystical role since primordial times. The tree is said to be the home of spirits, duppies (ghosts) and supernatural beings. The Arawaks believed that Silk Cotton trees with large buttress roots above the ground, would walk through the forest at night and return to their spot in the morning. Amerindians used the revered tree for medicinal purposes and the Tainos would make sacrificial gifts to the tree before cutting the wood to make their impressively long dug-out canoes.
These indigenous rituals fused with the spiritual practices of enslaved West Africans brought to the Caribbean. They too believed the Silk Cotton to be sacred – a connection to the spirits of their ancestors. On a more sinister note they saw the tree as a nefarious symbol of the devil and as a portal to the underworld. The roaming spirits of slaves, who had been hanged from the branches, were rumoured to live in the roots or the branches. Traditionally, people have been wary of building their homes next to silk cotton trees and refrained from cutting them down for fear of releasing the evil spirits living within. A cautiousness still partially observed in some parts of the Caribbean to this day.
Why we preserve our mature trees
We have kept the fruit trees and impressive Silk Cotton trees on our farms intact, perhaps not so much for fear of reprisal from evil spirits, but because environmental stewardship is important to us. First of all mature trees are visually pleasing and secondly they provide many vital ecosystem services.
Soil & water management
Trees are a very effective strategy for managing soil erosion. The large root systems aerate, drain and hold the soil in place. Depending on where the trees are planted, they can protect fields from salinity, waterlogging, wind and water erosion. In times of draught, trees add resilience to the farm. By reducing the runoff of nutrients and sediment, the tree coverage on our farms wards off issues with algae and bacteria and helps to maintain the water quality of adjacent water reservoirs and creeks. Win-win for us and nature.
Shelter & windbreaks
The canopy of large trees provides shade and shelter from the scorching heat for our sugar cane and workers alike. Hedges and large trees act as windbreaks that moderate wind damage to crops, reduce evapotranspiration and offer protection against extreme weather. Downwind, trees can shelter a remarkably large area at least 15 times their own height. Effective windbreaks can increase crop yield up to 25%. This is an excellent natural method to shield our farms, which are all located on the eastern side of the island, from the harsh Atlantic wind blasts and salt spray.
Wildlife & pest control
“Birds are technologically advanced, highly motivated, extremely efficient, and cost-effective, insect-pest controllers”. Stirling, J. (2007)
Naturally trees are also fantastic for the preservation of wildlife. They attract birds and bats, which in turn snack on detrimental insects. Other useful pest control agents are parasitic wasps – diligent little creatures that can prey on up to 200 different pests. On our farm in Old Bacolet we have counted a record 14 parasitic wasp nests on one of our mature trees alone. A great way to get some free pest control that reduces the need for and cost of pesticides used on the farms.
Carbon capture & storage
And last but not least… In the age of climate change, trees are of course a natural ally in purifying the air from pollution, sequestering and storing carbon. Wood products are made up of around 50% of carbon and worldwide numerous, large-scale afforestation initiatives are underway to reduce our carbon footprint on the planet.
Guardians of the farm
So there – trees are plenty useful on our farms. While not the main product, they are very complimentary to our sugar cane fields and help keep our farms ecologically healthy. We may even consider them as the guardians of the forest protecting the natural spirit of our farms.