Trees of the Panama Canal area

Ochroma pyrimidale

Family: Bombacaceae

Common name: balsa

Description: A medium-sized tree of roadsides, usually branching near the ground, with a wide, flat crown. Leaves are large and heart-shaped, usually weakly lobed, that is with corners on either side of the leaf. There are 3-5 prominent veins arising from the leaf base, and the underside of the leaf is whitish.

photos: leaf-flower ... flower ... fruit ... tree form ... leaf-flower ...

drawings: leaf-flower ...

Flowers and fruits: The balsa can be partly deciduous during the second half of the dry season or the beginning of the wet season, although leaves grow back quickly so trees are not usually completely leafless. Flowers are very large, to 20 cm across, and white, produced in December and January. Many birds, bats, and even kinkajous and olingos (arboreal, noctural mammals) visit the flowers for nectar. Fruits mature from February into the beginning of the wet season, are are long capsules that open to reveal tiny seeds covered in hairs that carry seeds in the wind.

Distribution: An abundant roadside species throughout the Canal area and most parts of Central and South America. Scarce in the forest, with juveniles only appearing in large clearings.

How to recognize: The large, heart-shaped leaves, weakly lobed, are distinctive. The other native species with similar leaves is the cuipo, Cavanillesia platanifolia, which is much less common along roads, has a straight trunk unbranched for most of its length, and generally has smaller leaves. Other species with heart-shaped leaves do not have the lobes (corners) of the balsa. See also the non-native teak, which has leaves quite like those of the balsa, and does occur pretty commonly along roadsides of the Canal area.

Uses: This is the balsa of model-airplane fame, with extremely light, soft wood. It is also used for making rafts (hence the name balsa, Spanish for raft). The seed's fibers are used for making cushions or life vests.