High above the dark vastness of the Amazon rainforest, a giant leaf-nosed bat scans the treetops for a crown that towers above the others. The bat is looking for a Samaúma tree. Reaching 70 metres in height, the Samauma is in her flowering period, promising the bat an abundant reward of nectar in return for its collaboration in the pollination process.
A little earlier in the day, during the late afternoon, a riverbank dweller returns from a day of fishing in the Solimões River and tries to spot the Samaúma’s giant canopy. For many years, fishermen have used it as a reference point for navigation, and thus know if it is time to detour to a stream nearby.
Not far from the fisherman, a member of the indigenous Asháninka people drums on the huge buttress root of another Samaúma to communicate with his tribe. The Samaúma’s tabular roots, which grow taller than people, echo the sound of these drum beats as far as a few miles away. In addition to serving as a communication tool, the Samaúma is a sacred tree for approximately 500 Amerindian tribes. It has strong spiritual significance and appears in shamanic rituals of peoples such as the Asháninkas, Ticunas, Karitianas, and Shanenawás. In the words of Asháninka leader and shaman Benki Piyãko, Samaúma is “a source of connection and liberation. This tree represents a connection to the spiritual world too.”
These three daily activities illustrate only part of the importance of the Samaúma in the daily lives of those who live in the Amazon. But these are not the only reasons why, within an enormous ecosystem composed of 390 billion trees and 16,000 different species, the Ceiba pentandra, or Samaúma, is a prominent member of the rainforest. Indeed, this majestic creation of nature has been nicknamed as “Queen of the Forest,” the “Tree of Life”, “Mother of All Trees”, or “Ladder of Heaven” in various regions of the Amazon.
About the tree
Connecting Heaven and Earth
A tropical plant of the Malvaceae family in the taxonomic order Malvales, Ceiba pentandra is found in Central America, Northern South America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. Its common name varies – in Brazil, it is known as Sumaúma, Sumaúma-da-várzea, Sumaumeira, Árvore-da-seda, Árvore-dalan, and Paina-lisa, to name a few. The populations of this species found in Tropical America (Amazon and Central America) and Africa are older and significantly predate human’s presence in these regions.
There are even taller trees, such as the Angelim Vermelho (Dinizia excelsa). Still, when it comes to the diameter of the crown and roots, the Samaúma reigns supreme, reaching up to 50 metres in diameter at her canopy and 20 metres in diameter at her roots, which spread out to support the enormous tree. This vast canopy is laced with thousands of leaves that are grouped in umbrella-shaped tassels of five to seven pointed leaves each, hanging sovereignly above the forest.
The trunk that connects the roots with the canopy is up to 2 metres in diameter. This element is core to the spiritual character of this majestic being. The Samaúma tree is sacred to the Huni Kuin people, for example. For them, it is a spirit that brings healing, a connection between heaven and earth. [Source] “This is the ‘Ladder of the Spirits,’” explains Sia, the cacique (political leader of an indigenous community) of a local Huni Kuin village. “On it you can climb up to the crown. All the spirits of the forest are united up there, that of plants, animals and humans. There you can feel them.”
Possessing the most expansive canopy among trees in the Amazon rainforest, the Sumaúna has an enormous capacity for photosynthesis due to the vast foliage in direct contact with the sunlight, providing oxygen to the entire world.
The roots of these giant trees spread out over a radius of nearly 152 metres below the ground to provide stability in areas of flooded soil and muddy floodplains – even though she can also thrive on firm soil, in South America and other continents.
A veritable giant water pump that processes a thousand litres of water a day – returning it to the atmosphere as rain and thus helping reduce the planet’s temperature – Sumaúma trees also serve as a water source for the population.
Samaúma’s flowering always occurs at night and in irregular periods every four to eleven years. Flowering lasts between ten days and three weeks – enough time to produce 200 litres of nectar. During peak flowering season, a single tree can deliver up to 20 litres of nectar a day.
Her white flowers last half a night, attracting nighttime visitors hungry for her abundance of nectar. Among these are night monkeys, marsupials, moths, and at least five species of bats, who act as the primary pollinators of the tree.
After flowering, Sumaúma trees produce fruit. At five to eight centimetres in diameter and eight to fifteen centimetres in length, the fruits are yellowish capsules that each store 120 to 175 seeds. This fruit is rich in oil, proteins, and carbohydrates, making a rich source of nutrients for wildlife and a potent fertiliser.
The seeds are also wrapped in a light, white, silky soft fibre that is easily caught by the wind, allowing the species to be spread effectively. Another critical feature in this process is the cork-like structure surrounding the seeds, which enables them to float in the waters of rivers and seas for long distances.
Antonio Nobre, one of the most well-known earth systems researchers in the world, based out of Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA), believes
“There are two paradigms that are really important in nature. The first paradigm is abundance. If you look at a tree that’s blossoming, it’s incredibly abundant. It offers not only the beauty and the elegance of the blossom. It is also offering nectar to all these insects and birds. Later on it’s offering fruits to all the animals. It’s a paradigm of giving.
All the beings that benefit from what the tree is offering live in another paradigm that says, ‘get only what you need.’ So if, for example, you take a lion in the Serengeti, in Africa. The lion will hunt and will predate a gazelle, and will eat. But the lion will only eat what it needs.”
Seven Seas Navigator
According to forest engineer Rogério Gribel, Coordinator of Biodiversity at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), pollination by air and water may explain why Ceiba pentandra is found in tropical forests on three continents. “The species has a pantropical distribution – that is, it occurs in all tropical forest regions of the world,” says Gribel, who has spent years studying the biology of reproduction, pollination, and genetics of progeny to understand the mating system of trees. Samaúma is among the plants he researched.
Conducted by scholars from INPA and the Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research in Panama, the study was published in ‘Molecular Ecology.’ After comparing the samples collected in French Guiana, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Brazilian Amazon with those collected in West African countries, the study shows that Samaúmas underwent at least one event of oceanic dispersal. “There is a relatively little genetic divergence between these populations, indicating that they have not been separated for a long time on the evolutionary scale,” says Gribel. “Our study also strongly suggests that the migration was from the Tropical America region, more precisely from the French Guiana region, to West Africa.”
The power of Samaúma does not end there. Medicine is produced from Samaúma’s sap to treat conjunctivitis; when ingested as a tea, its bark has diuretic properties and is indicated for treating abdominal dropsy and malaria; and chemical substances extracted from the bark of the roots can also fight bacteria and fungi.
“Samaúma is a beautiful natural resource,” says Gribel. “It’s a living being with spectacular characteristics, as are whales among mammals.”
A Tireless Source of Energy and Oxygen
The Amazon absorbs two billion tons of carbon dioxide per year – representing five percent of annual global emissions. The giant Samaúma, with its vast canopy, is an essential part of that process.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide and water from the forest’s air and soil. Photosynthesis happens when the chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs energy from sunlight, and the tree uses that energy to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen. Carbon dioxide thus becomes food for the tree, and all the oxygen produced is released into the atmosphere. This process is so powerful in Samaúma trees that they are able to generate their own food and still have extra sugar to be moved by the phloem and stored in the trunk or roots to be used again as energy at the beginning of the following spring.
As rain-soaked vegetation grows, the Amazon inhales and stores a tremendous amount of carbon, an effect that ripples across the entire global climate system. And through photosynthesis, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for generating 20 percent of our planet’s oxygen. Maintaining this production capacity is a vital part of combating climate change.
Rainmaker and Cooler for the Planet
The immense roots of Sumaúma trees, which run underground nearly 1,000 feet, reach the Amazon water table and, with the help of underground fungi, absorb nutrient-rich water and pump it into the trunk. This is the beginning of a process that makes Samaúmas work like a water pump.
As far apart as they may be, stretching into the sky at one end, and into the earth at the other, the deepest roots of a Samaúma are connected to the leaves that hang highest on its canopy. Within the sapwood, the layer just beneath the bark, water is carried up the tree via conducting vascular tissue called xylem. This transfer of water and other fluid is called the sap flow. The thick bark of the Samaúma offers excellent protection to the xylem, a tissue as thin as a hair, which all the water the leaves need for photosynthesis. Some of this water escapes from the tiny pores of the leaves, which helps keep the forest cool and allows water vapour to build up in the clouds and eventually fall as rain.
One single Samaúma channels a colossal volume of water every day – nearly 1,000 litres – and, together with the water pumped to the leaves, emits an elixir of chemical substances that react to form particles that induce moisture to fall from the sky.
This process helps the Amazon rainforest produce about half of its own rainfall, which in turn fills the aquifers that quench the thirst of tens of millions of people in Brazilian cities and irrigate the farms that feed them – even those thousands of miles away from the rainforest. Evaporation and constant rainfall have a cooling effect on the region and affect rainfall patterns in places as far away as the United States.
The Samaúma in Numbers
THE MAGNITUDE OF THE SAMAÚMA IN NUMBERS In an ecosystem with 390 billion trees from 16,000 different species, the Samaúma tree reigns as queen for the following reasons:
Lives up to 300 years
Can reach 70m high
Crown can be 50m in diameter
Trunk circumference reaches 2m in diameter
Tabular roots can measure 2m in height and spread over a 20m diameter
Under the ground, the roots penetrate up to a radius of 150m
A single tree channels about 1,000 litres of water per day
Flowering takes place every 4 to 11 years and lasts from 10 days to 3 weeks
A tree is capable of producing 200 litres of nectar per flowering
Fruit is 5-8cm in diameter and 7-15cm in length
Each fruit stores from 120 to 175 seeds
But according to Gribel, Samaúma trees are disappearing from the banks of the great rivers of the Amazon. “We live in a paradoxical situation: a queen of the floodplain forests, one of the most impressive trees in the world, turning into plywood kernels… It’s unfortunate.” In the words of scientist Antonio Nobre, “if we lose the Amazon, we lose Gaia.”