Gold Coast Bombax, Bombax buonopozense

The Gold Coast Bombax (Bombax buonopozense), or Red-flowered Silk Cotton Tree, is a native West African tree and member of the mallow family. It is referred to as Vabga (plural Vabsi) in the Dagbani language.

The plant is found in rainforests from Sierra Leone in the northwest, east to Uganda and south to Gabon, usually keeping to elevations of 900 to 1200 yards. A tall tropical tree, it generally reaches heights of 130 feet with sturdy supporting roots that spread 20 feet in diameter.

Younger trees are covered with spiny, conical bark, much of which sheds with maturity. The leafed branches spiral out from the trunk. Each compound leaf is set on long petioles and has 5 to 9 leaflets and 15 to 25 secondary veins. The individual leaflets are quite large, measuring 3 to 9 inches in length by 1 to 3 inches broad, with smooth edges. Leaflets may be hairless to very finely haired on the underside.

While the tree is still without leaves, striking deep pinkish red flowers emerge. The flowers are solitary or arranged in small axillary cymes. Standard size for each flower is 2 to 4 inches in length by about an inch broad. The buds are cone-shaped and cupped inside the calyx. Numerous stamens arranged in bundles are held inside the flower. Fruits produced of this plant are oblong-shaped and fairly large measuring 3 to 7 inches in length and up to 2 inches in diameter. Uniquely, upon maturity, the fruit opens spontaneously along the capsule wall in between the sections of the locule. Many tiny seeds are contained inside the fruit. A cotton-like fiber covers the seed.

Various parts of the tree are exploited for medicinal and traditional purposes. In its native land of Ghana, domestic livestock feed off of the leaves. In Dagbani, it is believed that smoke from burning the bark will drive evil spirits away. The charcoal that results from burning off thorns on the bark is mixed with butter to treat swelling. The tree produces a sap which is tried into gum and used as incense.

The tree also serves for practical purposes as well. The wood is light and is often utilized to build canoes. Tannins in the bark are used to make dye. The cotton-like fibers surrounding the seeds make a suitable substitute for cotton. The young fruit and flowers are edible for human consumption.

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