A large balsa tree growing next to a fence
Ochroma pyramidale

Balsa tree

Family: Malvaceae
Other common names: ha-ma (Chinanteco), 輕木 (Chinese, traditional), balzovník jihoamerický (Czech), balsabaum (German), バルサ (Japanese), bwa flo (Kwéyòl), x-k'uyché (Maya), pau de balsa (Portuguese),
охрома (Russian)
IUCN Red List status: Least Concern

Valued across the world for its strong but light wood, the balsa tree is native to the rainforests of South America.

Over 95% of balsa wood comes from Ecuador, where it is grown in dense plantations.

Balsa trees grow incredibly rapidly, reaching nearly 30 metres in under 15 years, but rarely live beyond 35 years.

The balsa tree is a member the Malvaceae family which contains species such as cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), cacao (Theobroma cacao) and okra (Abelmoschus esculentus).

The balsa tree is a deciduous or evergreen tree with smooth, grey-white bark that grows around 40m tall. The large leaves are weakly palmately lobed, and grow 30 to 40cm across. Balsa tree fruits are green capsules with cottony filaments called kapok which surround the seeds .

Read the scientific profile on balsa

Materials and fuels

Despite being a hardwood, balsa wood is very soft and light so it is used in crafts such as model airplanes.

Due to its buoyancy, balsa wood is also used for surfboards, buoys and fishing floats, and has been used historically for life rafts and lifebelts.

The cotton-like filaments (kapok) from the fruits can be used as stuffing in pillows and cushions.

  • The deHavilland Mosquito was a full-sized World War II aircraft renowned for having a frame built primarily of balsa wood.

  • The balsa tree gets its name from the Spanish word for raft because of the wood’s high buoyancy.

  • Even though it has incredibly light and soft wood, balsa is categorised as a hardwood because it comes from a flowering tree.

Map of the world showing where balsa is native and introduced to
Native: Belize, Bolivia, Brazil North, Central American Pac, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Leeward Is., Mexico Gulf, Mexico Southeast, Mexico Southwest, Panamá, Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad-Tobago, Venezuela, Windward Is.
Introduced: Andaman Is., Cameroon, Galápagos, Indonesia, Java, Malaysia, Nicobar Is., Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Senegal, Vietnam, Zaïre.

Tropical forests.

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The geographical areas mentioned on this page follow the World Geographical Scheme for Recording Plant Distributions (WGSRPD) developed by Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG).