Cochlospermum gillivraei

kapok foliage


Cochlospermum gillivraei

Benth. 1863

pronounced: kok-loh-SPER-mum gil-ilv-RAY-ee-eye

(Bixaceae — the achiote family)

common names: Australian kapok, kapok

native 4The name Cochlospermum is derived from two Greek words, κοχλος (kochlos), a shellfish with a spiral shell, and σπερμα (sperma), a seed; gillivraei refers to John McGillivray, the naturalist on H.M.S. Rattlesnake that made a voyage of discovery to northern Australia and New Guinea during the years 1846-1850, captained by Owen Stanley.

The best-known member of the achiote family is Bixa orellana, the source of the food colorant and flavour additive annatto, E160b.

The Australian Kapok is sometimes given its own family, Cochlospermaceae.

An Australian native, also occurring in New Guinea, the Kapok is found from about Townsville north in both Cape York Peninsula and Arnhem Land, usually in open forests and dry vine scrubs. In coastal areas it is often found on rocky ridges and headlands, at an altitudinal range from sea level to about 100 m. It has a smooth, creamy grey bark.

This tree is a common sight on the hillsides of Magnetic Island, and, like the Townsville Wattle in the earlier part of the year, gives a glorious splash of yellow colour to the native landscape from about July to October.
Besides being attractive, the flower is also edible, and in homes and restaurants its petals are sometimes used for garnishing dishes.

It is usually a small tree, growing as it mainly does in rocky soil; but in good soil it can reach a height of up to about 12 metres. When it is in full leaf, it looks from afar as just another tree in the bushland; but before flowering it loses most of its leaves and takes on a gaunt, skeletal appearance, especially when it is seen above the skyline. The new leaves start to appear as the flowering comes to an end.

The leaves are deeply lobed with 5-7 lanceolate lobes that are dark green and smooth, 5-7 cm by 8-10 cm.

The bright yellow flowers are about 10 cm in diameter. They are borne in small terminal panicles and have 5 open petals and red stamen filaments. The petals are marked by pink-red spots and striped on the inside surface.
The fruit is initially a green ball up to about 10 cm in diameter. As it ripens, it turns brown and splits into segments, revealing a cotton-like fibre that contains embedded black seeds.

The aboriginal peoples dug up the roots of small kapok plants, baked them in ashes, and hammered them to soften them before eating.

The Australian Kapok in cultivation needs well-drained soil and a sunny position. The plant may be propagated from seed. It would seem that the seed germinates more readily after hot water treatment.

This plant is one of those collected in 1770 by Banks and Solander during the voyage of the Endeavour at the Endeavour River (Cooktown).

The ‘true’ Kapok is Ceiba pentandra, native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and northern South America. The word is also used for the fibre obtained from its seed pods. This fibre is light, very buoyant, resilient, highly flammable and resistant to water. It cannot be spun, but was used extensively as a filling in pillows, mattresses, upholstery, teddy bears, and for insulation. It was also used in life jackets.

The seed pod of our Kapok is very like that of the ‘true’ Kapok in appearance.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay, 2005-2015
Page last updated 14th November 2018