When you take a TravelSmart VIP vacation to Royalton Negril, it’s hard not to be in awe of the huge tree located behind the amphitheater in the main courtyard; but did you know this century-old Silk Cotton tree has a story all of its own?
The Silk Cotton tree is indigenous to the tropical Americas, Jamaica included, and a variety is also found in West Africa. One of the largest and most visually spectacular indigenous trees, the Silk Cotton tree takes more than a century to reach its typical size – up to 40 meters high and with the diameter of its trunk up to 3 meters – and to develop its dramatic buttress roots. The tree blooms annually and produces fruits that burst open to reveal a ball of silky white fibers inside.
Not surprisingly, the silk cotton tree has considerable cultural significance, as is evident throughout the Caribbean. The trees were considered sacred by the Taíno, as the dwelling place of spirits and hold similar significance in African-derived popular religion, which may have incorporated some Taíno beliefs. In Mexico, the Mayans believe that the silk cotton tree — which they call ceiba — is the tree of life whose roots extend to the underworld, and whose branches hold up the heavens.
Fun fact: Jamaican fishermen who used the tree’s wood for dugout canoes would never cut one down without making offerings to the tree’s spirits.
In Jamaican culture, the silk cotton tree is associated with duppies (ghosts) and serves as a site for gatherings, rituals revelation in Revival and Kumina. Because of their size and longevity, Silk Cotton trees stand as silent, giant witnesses to centuries of history and serve as landmarks that provide shelter and shade.
The symbolic potential of Silk Cotton trees has been used in various ways. The tree serves as a national symbol of Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone; and in Jamaica, several locations are named after such trees, including Cotton-Tree Hill in St Elizabeth and most notably, Half-Way-Tree. John Pringle’s Cotton Tree, near Ferry along the road to Spanish Town, was another such landmark and reached the national news when the then more than 300-year-old tree collapsed and blocked the road in 1971.
The Silk Cotton Tree also appears in Jamaican art, where it takes on various meanings, and for instance features in three major paintings from the NGJ Collection: Henry Daley’s Cotton Tree (1944); Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds’ Peaceful Quietness (1967); and Everald Brown’s Cotton Duppy Tree (1994). The latter two are currently featured in Natural Histories and the former can be seen in a permanent exhibition of modern Jamaican art.
In southern Europe, the Cypress tree is frequently seen around cemeteries and its frequent presence in Van Gogh’s work was not only based on observed reality but invoked its associations with death and the expressive manner in which he typically depicted the Cypress tree, as if it were a dark flame, only reinforces these allusions. Given the symbolic compatibilities, it thus made perfect sense for Daley to “Jamaicanize” his inspiration by substituting the Cypress tree with the Silk Cotton tree in his work.