A good sleep is an elusive commodity. Many synthetic mattresses in the market promise a blissful night’s sleep, but those used to sleeping organic will vow that the luxury of a mattress-induced sleep comes packed inside the pods of the silk cotton tree.

Their numbers are steadily rising, and this is more than proved this time of the year at Mekkara village in Tamil Nadu, bordering Achencoil in Kerala.

In the past, Mekkara used to be part of the erstwhile Travancore, and a good number of those living there now have their roots in Kerala. Though perched on the Western Ghats, being on the rain shadow side the Mekkara land is less productive than that in Kerala.

Since deciduous forests are highly adaptable to rain shadow areas, the people of Mekkara thought of earning a living from the kapok or silk cotton tree, which is a deciduous tree. While people in Kerala were felling the silk cotton trees thinking them to be worthless, those in Mekkara were quick to gauge the economic potential of the trees and began planting them.

Profitable venture

Today, the silk cotton farmers there earn lakhs. Activity in the village picks up in February-March when it is time to harvest the silk cotton pods. On an average, a farmer with one acre under silk cotton tree cultivation earns over Rs.1 lakh during the season, and all that is profit since he incurs no expenditure tending to the trees. They thrive on their own.

Those in the silk cotton industry come from far and near to purchase the pods. Suresh, a silk cotton farmer, says this year the prices are slightly low because of stocks owing to excess production last year. Yet a single pod fetches Re.1. Last year, the price was Rs.1.30 to Rs.1.50 for a pod.

There are trees that bear more than 4,000 pods each. A farmer on an average has at least 60 trees, earning a revenue of Rs.2.50 lakh. There are also big time silk cotton tree farmers who have plantations with 200 to 300 trees each.

Many of them lease out the harvesting. In such plantations, those who take the lease bring in labour for the harvest. Others do the harvesting themselves and sell it to the traders. The Mekkara belt has tracts of land running into several hundred hectares under silk cotton tree cultivation.

Silk cotton mattresses are steadily capturing a share of the market as they are thought to provide a more comfortable sleeping surface in hot weather.

The kapok sheds its foliage after the rainy season. Flowering occurs when the tree is leafless. The pod, measuring about 6 inches each, is filled with brown seeds and lustrous cotton-like floss. It is this floss which is the raw material for the mattress.

When they reach the harvesting stage, the pods announce it by opening on the tree itself. After harvest, the seeds and cotton fibre are removed from the pods by hand and stirred manually in baskets or mechanically in electric drums to make the seeds drop to the bottom, leaving the fibres clean.

The seeds may be processed to obtain oil for making soap, and the residue is used as fertilizer and cattle feed. The fibre is too brittle for spinning, but it weighs only one-eighth as much as cotton. Hence, it is used for stuffing mattresses and pillows. It is also used as insulation material, as a substitute for cotton in surgery, and in water-safety equipment.

Benefits claimed

Those in the silk cotton industry claim that silk cotton mattresses provide the proper spinal alignment and support while sleeping. These mattresses are devoid of harmful chemicals and chemical odour. The fibre is soft like down and has no allergens. It is both moisture and dust mite-resistant. What is important is that the fibre used for stuffing mattresses is seed free as they attract rats.

There are stuffing units in Shengottai town, near Mekkara, where seed-free silk cotton fibre is shown to customers and then stuffed into mattresses. This tradition has made the town famous for silk cotton mattresses and pillows.

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